The Wooly Mammoths Of The Steppes

Wooly mammoths were much like elephants, with a few significant differences. They became extinct during the last Ice Age, and no one really knows why.

Long ago, in the middle of the Ice age, lived the wooly mammoth, a fascinating creature that is a distant relative of the elephant. It looked and acted much like the elephant of today, with a few significant differences. Mammoths, like elephants, have much longer life spans than many other animals. Wooly mammoths were in their prime at about age 40, and if not killed by predators or disease, often lived to the age of seventy.

The mammoth was like elephants in size, as they stood about eleven feet high and weighed several tons, but grew massive tusks. By the time a male mammoth was in his prime, his ivory tusks could be as long as sixteen feet and weigh 260 pounds each. Mammoths were covered entirely in a double layer of hair, hence the name wooly mammoths, and the color was primarily brown, though the shades of mammoth hair found by archeologists has been everything from golden to black. The dense inner layer of hair was soft, thick, and served as insulation. Over the short inner layer was a long, coarse, wind breaking outer layer. The outer hairs were darker than the inner, of varying lengths, and hung down from the flanks and abdomen of the mammoth, creating a pad underneath them when they lay down on frozen ground. This double layer of fur quite efficiently protected the wooly mammoth from the frigid climate it lived in.

The wooly mammoth lived almost exclusively on the steppes, or great plains, of Europe. Female mammoths were herd animals, living in groups that consisted primarily of related females and their offspring and could be as large as a hundred animals. Only very young males lived with the herd, and usually left upon reaching puberty, which was roughly about twelve years of age.

Mammoths spent most of the day and night eating, as they needed to consume about six hundred pounds of food each day. A lot of the food they consumed was food that other species could not eat, such as rough grasses, stems, and tree bark, and contained great quantities of fibrous filler. They also consumed smaller quantities of more nutritious plants like birch leaves. These plants were important to the wooly mammoth diet, but could be toxic if eaten in large amounts, so the mammoth stuck mostly to rougher fare, making its teeth very important. Mammoth skeletons found with broken or damaged teeth cause scientists to speculate that they starved to death because they could no longer eat the tough fare that was their daily diet.

Because a herd could be large, and they ate such massive amounts of food, the devastation that they left behind them as they traveled across the steppes was amazing. But for all the grass ripped out by its roots and bark stripped from trees, their disturbance was beneficial to the steppes, and to other animals. By clearing away the woody stemmed grasses and small trees, a place was made for tender grasses and foods that were essential to the other inhabitants of the great plains.

Mammoths differed from elephants in their mating habits. Like elephants, females go into heat, or estrus, once each year. But wooly mammoth males went into a form of heightened sexual readiness each year, called musth. A male mammoth did not begin musth, until he was close to thirty and then only for a week or so. But by the time he reached his forties, if he was in top condition, he could be in musth for three or four months each year. Though any male past puberty could mate with a receptive estrus female, bulls were more successful when they were in musth. While in musth, the temporal glands of the male swelled and oozed a strong-smelling fluid, and he constantly dribbled acrid smelling urine.

There were valid reasons for male musth. At close range, male mammoths knew when females were ready to conceive by their scent, just like other species do. But mammoths ranged over such large territories that they evolved other ways to communicate their mating readiness. The smell of the fluid from their glands and the strong smell of the urine of a musth male helped males and females find each other over longer distances when they were ready for mating. And when a female was in estrus or a male was in musth, the pitch of their voices lowered. Low-pitched sounds don't die out across long distances the way higher tones do, and their deep rumbling calls carried for miles across the vast plains.

Mammoths died out at the end of the last ice age. No one really knows why, but scientists theorize that there just may not have been enough food to support them. They did have predators, including early man, but these were not plentiful enough or needy enough to hunt the mammoth to extinction.

Scientists have recently found a fully-grown male mammoth frozen in the tundra of Siberia for more than 20,000 years. They have hopes of cloning the mammoth from the DNA found in the carcass, or of impregnating an elephant if they find viable sperm.

At least in theory, a pairing of mammoth sperm and the egg of an Asian elephant could produce an offspring. There is less than a 5 percent difference between the genetic makeup of the two animals. The resulting creature would be half-mammoth, half-elephant, but over time, selective breeding of mammoth-elephant hybrids might produce a nearly pure mammoth. In the best-case scenario, a mammoth hybrid could be born within two years. That is the length of the gestation period of an elephant.

But some people don't believe that scientists should clone the mammoth. They believe that there is no place for the wooly mammoth in our modern world. Others believe that it would be wonderful to have a wooly mammoth cloned.

Regardless of their personal feelings about cloning, scientists are intrigued by the clues to the past that they may discover in the bitter cold of Siberia. And depending on what they find when they thaw the mammoth, perhaps we will now have the chance to smell the scent of a fascinating animal that hasn't walked the Earth for thousands of years.

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