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Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius)

Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius)

Temporal occurrence
Pliocene to Holocene
5.7 million years to around 4,000 years
Russell animals (Proboscidea)
Elephants (Elephantidae)
Scientific name
Brookes , 1828

The mammoths ( Sing. The Mammut ; Pl .: Also Mammuts ), scientific name Mammuthus (from French mammouth < Russian : мамонт mamont <probably from the forest nizzle ), form an extinct genus of elephants . It originated in the transition from the Miocene to the Pliocene in Africa and settled in Europe as well as Asia and North America in the period that followed . The last representatives of the mammoths, which belong to the most well-known species, the woolly mammoth ( M. primigenius ), only died out as a dwarf form around 4,000 years ago on Wrangel Island in northern Siberia .

In November 2008, the genome sequence of the woolly mammoth was published in the journal “Nature” . About 70 percent of the genetic information could be deciphered. The mammoth genome is the first genome of an extinct animal to be sequenced.


Especially the representatives of the mammoths ( Mammuthus primigenius ) living during the last glacial period were tied to the habitat of the cold steppe . Commonly referred to as mammoth steppe designated form of vegetation is only about 20 percent of grasses , far more dominant are especially high protein herbs and flowers such as plantains , mugwort , yarrow , chrysanthemums , cowbells , Avens and even some pastures . This tundra- like cold steppe with the nutritious herbs formed the basis for feeding herds of large land mammals. It originally extended from western Europe over the eastern European lowlands, northern Siberia to Alaska and also included some then dry shelf areas such as the North Sea ( Doggerland ) and the Bering Strait . In addition to the mammoth, the saiga antelope , mouflon , ibex , various types of deer ( red deer , giant deer , elk , reindeer ) and wild cattle ( wisent and bison ), but also the woolly rhinoceros , larger and smaller predators such as big cats ( snow leopard , cave lion ) belonged to the animal world of that time ), Bears ( cave bears , brown bears ) and dogs ( wolf , fox ) and also numerous small mammals to the usual image of the mammoth steppe. Descendants of the animal species in this biotope now live mainly in high mountains and arctic regions.

This habitat was also inhabited and used by populations of the early hunter-gatherers .


General and height

Mammoths were large to very large mammals with a generally elephant-like build with a large head and columnar legs. The size varied from species to species, the well-known woolly mammoth ( Mammuthus primigenius ), the final link of the mammoth development from the Middle and Upper Pleistocene , reached a shoulder height of 2.8 to 3.7 m and thus corresponded to that of the elephants living today, the Weight varied from 5 to 8 tons. However, other species could grow larger, for example the prairie mammoth ( Mammuthus columbi ) from the Pleistocene of North America and the southern elephant ( Mammuthus meridionalis ) from the Old Pleistocene of Eurasia reached up to 4.2 m shoulder height and weighed a good 12 t. The largest representative of the mammoth and one of the largest known proboscis at all was the steppe mammoth ( Mammuthus trogontherii ), which lived in Eurasia in the Old and Middle Pleistocene. It was up to 4.5 m high and its estimated weight was 15 t.

Within the mammoths, small groups were separated from the main population of the individual species on islands to develop dwarf forms. Dwarf forms have been found in Sardinia and Crete, which are descended from the southern elephant. One extreme form is the Cretan dwarf mammoth ( Mammuthus creticus ), which was only about 1.1 m high and about 310 kg heavy.

Skull and dentition features

Short, high skulls were characteristic of the mammoths, even more pronounced than elephas , which grew taller and taller in the course of their development. The forehead line was steep in front and, unlike Loxodonta, was strongly indented. The frontal bone was pulled back. Seen from the front, the frontal and parietal bones were arched, with a very deep central depression as in Elephas missing. The occiput was also greatly elongated and had deep-lying joints for the cervical spine, which were almost at the level of the palatine bone . Other special characteristics of the mammoth skull were the widely spaced eye windows and, especially in contrast to the recent elephants, the very close, almost parallel alveoli of the upper tusks. As with today's elephants, the bones of the skull were filled with air, on the one hand to reduce weight, on the other hand to ensure a larger attachment point for the massive neck and jaw muscles due to the associated increase in surface area.

The dentition was comparable to that of the recent elephants and consisted of a pair of tusks in the upper row of teeth, which historically had formed from the second incisor through hypertrophy , and of three molars per half of the jaw. The deciduous teeth also had three premolars each . The tusks were long and clearly curved, with the curvature becoming stronger and stronger in the course of the tribal history and leading to spiral-shaped tusks. The longest known tusk measured 4.9 m over the curvature and comes from a prairie mammoth from Post in the US state of Texas . The tusks were about a quarter of their length in the alveoli.

The other set of teeth consisted of a functional molar tooth per half of the jaw, which could be replaced a total of five times after it was worn, i.e. six generations. This horizontal change of teeth is typical for elephants and differs significantly from the vertical change of teeth in most mammals. In general, the molars were high-crowned ( hypsodontal ), whereby the high-crownedness increased in the course of development. For example, the height of the molars later exceeded their width by twice their width. An important feature was the lamellar structure of the molars, which was achieved through narrow enamel folds . The number of lamellae of the individual molars, usually the third and last molar, has taxonomic value for the determination of the mammoth species. The number of enamel folds increased sharply in the course of the evolution of the mammoth. The earliest African mammoth forms such as Mammuthus subplanifrons or Mammuthus africanavus had 7 to 9 or an average of 9 enamel folds. While the southern elephant was the first Eurasian mammoth representative to have 13 to 18 enamel lamellae, the steppe mammoth already had between 17 and 23. The woolly mammoth ultimately had 21 to 30 enamel lamellae. Due to the morphology of the molars, these late mammoth forms represent the most specialized elephants of all. The increase in enamel folds is a sign of a stronger adaptation to open landscape conditions and an increasing specialization in the resulting grass food. The increase in the number of wrinkles was accompanied by a thinning of the enamel band of the individual wrinkles from 4 to 5 to 1 to 2 mm.


The mammoths developed in the transition from the later Miocene to the early Pliocene in Africa and spread from there to Eurasia and North America. They specialized increasingly in grass food and developed adaptations to the cold. According to molecular genetic studies, they separated from the line that led to the Asian elephant ( Elephas maximus ) 6.7 million years ago . The oldest fossil remains of mammoths are about 5.7 million years old and come from the land sink of Afar in Ethiopia, with 5 million years are only slightly younger finds from Langebaanweg in South Africa . These finds belong to the species Mammuthus subplanifrons . The transition from the Miocene to the Pliocene was characterized by a large variety of different forms of proboscis in Africa, and the development of modern elephants such as Loxodonta , Elephas or Mammuthus also occurred during this period . The problem with these early elephant finds is that they mainly consist of fragmented teeth and bits of dentition, and skull material that belongs together is rare. The teeth usually consist of a small number of lamellae with a thick layer of enamel ; this similar design can still make it difficult to differentiate between the individual early forms. Mammuthus subplanifrons surely survived until about three million years ago. Around this time, his presumed direct successor Mammuthus africanavus appeared in North Africa, which is sometimes also regarded as the first clear member of the mammoth . This species may have been the ancestor of the southern elephant ( Mammuthus meridionalis ), which is also the first mammoth representative to be found in Eurasia. The steppe mammoth ( Mammuthus trogontherii ) developed from the southern elephant about 750,000 years ago , spreading over northern Eurasia and becoming the ancestor of the woolly mammoth . The prairie mammoth ( Mammuthus columbi ) of North America probably evolved from the southern elephant, which immigrated to America about 1.5 million years ago. Some experts also see an origin of the prairie mammoth in the steppe mammoth, which has not yet been proven in North America. The prairie mammoth first appeared in the Old Pleistocene around 1.2 million years ago. It forms the basis for part of the American mammoth population. In the Young Pleistocene , the woolly mammoth also settled in North America, but preferred more northern regions than the prairie mammoth. In the contact area, for example in the northern part of today's USA , the two species were probably mixed, as molecular genetic studies of the prairie mammoth were able to detect individual haplotypes of the woolly mammoth in its genome . The causes are not fully understood; introgression processes may play a role, as they are known to be comparable between the African elephant ( Loxodonta africana ) and the forest elephant ( Loxodonta cyclotis ).

The following types are recognized today:

  • Mammuthus subplanifrons ( Osborn, 1928 ); Pliocene; East and Central Africa
  • Mammuthus africanavus ( Arambourg, 1952 ); Pliocene to Old Pleistocene; North africa
  • Mammuthus meridionalis ( Nesti, 1825 ) (southern elephant; including Mammuthus rumanus and Mammuthus gromovi ); Pliocene to Old Pleistocene; Europe, Russia
  • Mammuthus lamarmorai ( Major, 1883 ); Young Pleistocene; Southern Europe
  • Mammuthus creticus ( Bate, 1907 ) (Cretan dwarf mammoth); Old Pleistocene; Southern Europe
  • Mammuthus trogontherii ( Pohlig, 1885 ) (steppe mammoth); Old to Middle Pleistocene; Eurasia
  • Mammuthus primigenius ( Blumenbach, 1799 ) (woolly mammoth ); Middle Pleistocene Middle Holocene; Eurasia, North America
  • Mammuthus columbi ( Falconer, 1857 ) (prairie mammoth; including Mammuthus hayi , Mammuthus imperator, and Mammuthus jeffersoni ); Old to Young Pleistocene; North and Central America
  • Mammuthus exilis ( Stock & Furlong, 1928 ) (dwarf mammoth or California dwarf mammoth); Middle to Young Pleistocene; North America

In general, “mammoth” means the woolly mammoth ( Mammuthus primigenius ) that was widespread in Eurasia and North America during the last Ice Age . It is misleading that the generic name mammoth does not denote the mammoth , but a representative of the mammoths (Mammutidae), a more primitive group of proboscis with sometimes four tusks, which were also hairy in the last ice age, and are only distantly related to these and the elephants developed. Both lines of development separated as early as the Upper Oligocene . From a research-historical point of view, it should be noted that the genus name Mammut Blumenbach was scientifically introduced earlier in 1799 for the member of today's Mammutidae than Mammuthus Brookes , in 1828 for the more well-known mammoths as representatives of the elephants.

Mammoth and human

The woolly mammoth was one of the hunting animals of the people in the Upper Pleistocene , bones and ivory also served as material resources. This is documented by numerous cave paintings and a large number of mammoth bones accumulations in archaeological sites of the Aurignacia , Gravettia and Epigravettia . The mammoth bone houses of Meschyritsch , Mesyn , Dobranitschewka and Kiev , Kirillowskaja Ulitsa (all Ukraine ) from the time of the Eastern European Epigravettia (corresponds roughly to the Magdalenian of Central Europe) - Mezin is to 16,000 BC are spectacular . To date.

die out

Whether excessive hunting (“ overkill hypothesis ”) caused the animals to become extinct or rapid climatic changes at the end of the Ice Age (warming in the Allerød Interstadial ) is still a matter of dispute. A study by C. Johnson suggests that the extinction of the woolly mammoth and other Pleistocene species was accompanied by a rapid decline in fertility. He sees an insufficient reproduction rate in a number of large mammals in Australia, Eurasia, America and Madagascar as the main cause of extinction, while he rejects the "overkill hypothesis" (in Johnson: "Blitzkrieg hypothesis" ) as the causal scenario. Since species with a declining reproduction rate are exposed to additional stress when hunted by humans, the simultaneity of extinction and increased hunting by hunter-gatherer populations is the logical consequence. Danish biologist Roy Weber of Aarhus University blames the shrinkage of herbs in the cold steppe and thus the climate for the extinction of the mammoths .

So far it has been assumed that the woolly mammoth was already extinct in Europe and southern Siberia at the end of the Young Pleistocene around 12,000 years ago, after it was able to penetrate once more to northeast Europe in the last cold phase (" Younger Dryas ") at the end of the Vistula Ice Age . Newly dated old finds from Russia from the 1940s show, however, that the last mammoths only appeared around 9250 BC. B.C., about 300 years after the beginning of the Preboreal , disappeared from Northeast Europe. Only a little later the species disappeared - judging by today's fossil report - also on the north Siberian mainland. Only on the East Siberian Wrangel Island did small populations survive until around 2000 BC. Chr.

In continental Alaska , the woolly mammoth ( Mammuthus primigenius ) died around 12,000 BC. While on St. Paul , the northernmost of the Pribilof Islands , a remaining population of woolly mammoths from the former Beringia land mass was isolated until about 3600 BC. Existed. In the Late Pleistocene only by a narrow channel of California separate Channel Islands (California) a as survived Mammuthus exilis designated insular dwarfism prairie mammoth ( Mammuthus columbi ) to about 11,000 v. BC possibly even up to 10,200 BC BC - the continental form of the prairie mammoth ( Mammuthus columbi ) also died out around this time.

The discussion about the extent to which human hunting (see: Humans and Prairie Mammoths) contributed to the extinction of the Northeast Asian and American mammoths is currently dominated by positions that the ecological changes caused by climate change at the end of the Ice Age (especially soil formation-related vegetation change ) are the sole cause and view the effects of humans only as a side influence on species that have already been weakened by ecological factors.

Discovery of preserved bodies

The male woolly mammoth calf "Dima" at the place where it was found in the former
Beringia mammoth steppe

In the Asian part of Russia , well-preserved mammoth bodies almost completely enclosed in the ice are found again and again. These are mostly discovered by the pungent musk and rotten smell that can be perceived for miles as soon as parts of the animal's body have been exposed by thawing. In addition to the rapid decomposition, scavengers also ensure that such carcasses, which have been frozen continuously for thousands of years, are often completely destroyed within weeks. In May 2013, Russian scientists discovered an extremely well-preserved older female mammoth on the Lyakhov Islands in the Arctic Ocean, from whose carcass a sample of liquid blood could be obtained. According to the scientists, this increases the chances of successfully cloning mammoths.

Locations of mammoths and woolly rhinos up to 1912 (from Digby: The Mammoth , 1923)

Sites and museums

Important sites that have contributed much to the analysis of the mammoth's way of life include the tar pits at Rancho La Brea and the Bechan Cave , a cave used by prairie mammoths 15,000 years ago for 1,500 years.

Large quantities of remains have also been found on the New Siberian Islands , which owe a large part of their history of discovery to Russian traders who were looking for the remains of mammoths, especially their ivory tusks .

Seven complete mammoth skeletons can be seen in the Mammutheum Siegsdorf , a large one in the Southeast Bavarian Natural History and Mammoth Museum in Siegsdorf in Chiemgau, and a partial skeleton in the Museum of Prehistory in Eichstätt. Further, more or less complete mammoth skeletons can be found, for example, in Stuttgart, Münster (location: Ahlen), Bottrop, Darmstadt, Halle an der Saale and Sangerhausen. The largest find in Switzerland is in Niederweningen , where the finds can be seen in a specially set up mammoth museum.

In June 2009, the almost intact skeleton of a steppe mammoth ( Mammuthus trogontherii ) was discovered in a coal mine in Kostolac, Serbia, in the immediate vicinity of the excavation site of the former Roman legionary camp and city of Viminatium . The find dates to the Old to Middle Pleistocene and is between 1 million and 400,000 years old. It is a male animal over 60 years of age. A team of scientists led by Adrian M. Lister took over the analysis of the find . In 2012, a scientifically important mammoth cemetery with several severely disarticulated mammoth skeletons was uncovered at the same location. However, these come from loess layers of the Middle Pleistocene and, according to radiometric data, are around 192,000 years old.

Finally, in June 2014, the first so-called “Mammoth Park” in Europe was opened on the grounds of the Viminatium Archaeological Park with the Kostolac mammoth fossils. In addition to the steppe mammoth, four other mammoth skeletons are on display. The Kostolac mammoth is one of the few mammoth fossils that is exhibited directly at its place of discovery.

In mid-August 2016, during the construction of the north motorway (A5) near Bullendorf (Mistelbach district), Lower Austria, two 2.5 m long tusks and vertebrae of a mammoth were recovered. The fossils were discovered during the geological survey and are estimated to be 1 million years old.

Trading in mammoth skeletons

Due to their enormous size, only a few complete mammoth skeletons are privately owned. In 2016 a skeleton 3.5 meters high and 5.5 meters long, which a fossil collector had assembled from 270 bones, was auctioned for € 120,000.


The name mammoth has been used in Europe since the 17th century. The name may have been introduced by the Amsterdam mayor Nicolaas Witsen (1641-1717), who published a travelogue to Northeast Siberia in 1692 . The word, which is also Mamont (мамонт) in Russian and in some older European sources , comes from a Siberian language. The Waldnenzisch (forest Jurakic) term "jěaŋ-ŋammurəttaə" ("earth eater") was identified as a possible starting word .


See also


  • Vadim Evgenievič Garutt: The mammoth. Mammuthus primigenius (Blumenbach). Reprint of the 1st edition from 1964. Westarp Wissenschaften, Hohenwarsleben 2004, ISBN 3-89432-171-7 .
  • Ulrich Joger (Ed.): Mammoths from Siberia. Book accompanying the exhibition in the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt from October 20, 1994 to February 19, 1995. Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, Darmstadt 1994, ISBN 3-926527-34-X .
  • Adrian Lister, Paul Bahn: Mammoths. The giants of the ice age. Thorbecke, Sigmaringen 1997, ISBN 3-7995-9050-1 .
  • Richard Stone: Mammoth - Return of the Giants? Franckh-Kosmos, Stuttgart 2003, ISBN 3-440-09520-7 .
  • Peter D. Ward : Extinct or Extinct? Why the mammoths couldn't survive the Ice Age. Birkhäuser, Basel 1998, ISBN 3-7643-5915-3 .
  • Reinhard Ziegler: The mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius Blumenbach) from Siegsdorf near Traunstein (Bavaria) and its accompanying fauna. In: Munich Geoscientific Treatises. Row A: Geology and Paleontology. 26, 1994, ISSN  0177-0950 , pp. 49-80.

Individual evidence

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Web links

Wiktionary: Mammut  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Mammoths  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files