Mammuthus primigenius, more commonly known as the woolly mammoth, has been a well loved prehistoric favorite among scientists and the general public for decades. The first woolly mammoth specimen was discovered in the 18th century in Siberia with only the tusks and teeth making up the specimen. Originally thought to have been a displaced African or Asian elephant, it was later determined, as more specimens arose, to be an entirely new species and genus. The mammoth, because of how unusually well some remains have been preserved, is one of the most studied prehistoric vertebrates out there. It has been spotlighted in the news several times as being a candidate for cloning, although logistics for such an experiment may never be solved. With examples like the Jarkov  mammoth and the baby Yuka, people relish for news on this massive animal. More and more research comes out every year, including recent information on the total domain of the mammoth on Earth.  

Many previous studies on mammoths have focused on finding out the diet of these animals using the DNA of plants found in the permafrost of arctic zones. Permafrost is ground that is frozen all year round and can last in this frigid state for thousands of years. When scientists take soil samples from this dirt and frost they can find plant remains such as leaves, roots and even pollen to identify – either visually or by DNA (if enough plant is left over) – and reconstruct the floral life in ancient environments. Seeing as how the age when the mammoths lived wasn’t terribly long ago (400,000 to 10,000 years ago) compared to the entirety of Earth’s history (4.5 billion years), it is easy to reconstruct their relatively modern environment. Although these data were not used in the most recent study, it would be interesting to see how plant life may have affected the spread of the mammoth as well as topography.

The most recent study on the woolly mammoth, published in Quaternary International this August,  did not actually concern physical discovery of new specimens all that much. It involved the delicate and meticulous mapping of the mammoth’s distribution. Previously it was thought that woolly mammoths could only inhabit the arctic and tundra biomes of the Pleistocene period. Scientists such as Ralf-Dietrich Kahlke of Germany took all of the previously discovered specimens of mammoths and planted them on a giant map, a mark for each discovery. These specimens may have been only a tusk, toe bone or rib, and did not need to include a complete body. Once the map was completed, some amazing patterns were noticed.  

This map, which covered massive amounts of land including almost the entirety of Russia and Europe as well as large portions of North America, is estimated to be more than 33,000,000 square km large. This far exceeds any previous estimations made before, and brings into the world many more possibilities about the lifestyle of this animal.

Mapped region in brown is where mammoths are estimated to have extended during their existence. Image by Ralf-Dietrich Kahlke.

Mapped region in brown is where mammoths are estimated to have extended during their existence. Image by Ralf-Dietrich Kahlke. (Click to enlarge)


The only barriers that the mammoths seemed to face were physical ones. The fossil record of these animals seems to cut off at very distinct land features. Some of these features include deserts, large mountain ranges and glaciers. These barriers prevented the migration of the mammoth species from increasing any further. The North American grasslands seemed to pose a problem as well, which was surprising compared to the other kinds of terrain that mammoth specimens had been found in. It seems that more than anything else, large obstacles and extended terrain change played the biggest roles in reining in the mammoth’s expansion southward.

The mammoth certainly deserves recognition as a star of the Pleistocene epoch. The amazing adaptations this species went through in life far exceeds what scientists previously thought was possible. The mammoth could have lived in much warmer climates and even fed on plants that no one guessed they would have been  able to sustain themselves on. It is shocking to think that such a large beast could be at home in such a wide variety of locations during the expansion of the tundra terrain.

Published On: September 16, 2015

Cienna Lyon

Cienna Lyon

Cienna Lyon is a student at Ithaca College in New York studying Biology and German and a volunteer science writer for the Paleontological Research Institute. She works in a lab with Te-Wen Lo on genetic research and at the Whalen Center for Music which are both on the Ithaca College campus. She spends her free time playing the french horn in several on campus musical ensembles or getting up to date with all the new paleontological discoveries as becoming a theropod paleontologist is her end goal.

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