Woolly mammoths were the last species of the genus mastodon. Most populations of the woolly mammoth died out at the end of the last Ice Age. New findings show that some were still present in North America and Eurasia about 12,000 years ago. A small population survived on St. Paul Island, Alaska, up until 4000 years ago and the small mammoths of Wrangel Island became extinct only around 4000 years ago.
They measured approximately 10 feet in height with extremely long tusks up to 16 feet long which were curved to a much greater extent than those of present day elephants. It is not clear whether the tusks were a specific adaptation to their environment, but it has been suggested that they may have used their tusks as shovels to clear snow from the ground and reach the vegetation buried below. This is evidenced by flat sections on the ventral surface of some tusks.
Woolly mammoths had a number of adaptations to the cold, most famously the thick layer of shaggy hair up to 35 inches long with a fine underwool, for which the woolly mammoth is named. Their skin was no thicker than that of present-day elephants, but unlike elephants they had numerous sebaceous glands in their skin which secreted greasy fat into their hair, improving its insulating qualities. Their teeth were also adapted to their diet of coarse tundra grasses.
A definitive explanation for their mass extinction is yet to be agreed upon. About 12,000 years ago, warmer, wetter weather was beginning to take hold. Rising sea levels swamped the coastal regions. Forests replaced open woodlands and grasslands across the continent. The Ice Age was ebbing. As their habitats disappeared, so did the mammoth.
Another influencing factor to their eventual extinction in America during the late Pleistocene may have been the presence of Paleo Indians, who entered the American continent in relatively large numbers 13,000 years ago. Their hunting caused a gradual attrition to the mastodon and mammoth populations, significant enough that over time the mastodons were hunted to extinction.
New data derived from studies done on living elephants suggests that though human hunting may not have been the primary cause for the mammoth’s final extinction, human hunting was likely a strong contributing factor. Homo erectus is known to have consumed mammoth meat as early as 1.8 million years ago.
The survival of the dwarf mammoths on Russia’s Wrangel Island was because the island was very remote and uninhabited in the early Holocene period. The actual island was not discovered by modern civilization until the 1820s by American whalers. A similar dwarfing occurred with the Pygmy Mammoth on the outer Channel Islands of California.
There have been occasional claims that the woolly mammoth is not actually extinct, and that small isolated herds might survive in the vast and sparsely inhabited tundra of the northern hemisphere. In the late nineteenth century, there were persistent rumours about surviving mammoths hiding in Alaska. In October 1899 a story about a man named Henry Tukeman detailed his having killed a mammoth in Alaska and that he subsequently donated the specimen to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. However, the museum denied the existence of any mammoth corpse and the story turned out to be a hoax.
In the 19th century, several reports of large shaggy beasts were passed on to the Russian authorities by Siberian tribesman, but no scientific proof ever surfaced. A French charge working in Vladivostok claimed that in 1920 he met a Russian fur trapper that claimed to have seen living giant, furry elephants deep in the taiga. He added that the fur trapper didn’t even know about mammoths before and that he talked about the mammoths as a forest animal at a time when they were presumed living on the tundra and snow.
A woolly mammoth appears in an ancient legend of the Kaska tribe in British Columbia. The story tells how the boy in the title killed the animal and was rewarded by being made the first chief of his people. The animal is described as a huge shaggy beast that roamed the land long ago, but is also said to steal meat and eat people, suggesting that the creature in the story could have become embellished over the years, or refers to some animal other than a mammoth.