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Mammoths

Woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius)Mammoths are extinct kinds of elephant, known for their long, curved tusks and, in later species, their shaggy coats. The most familiar species, the woolly mammoth, lived in northern lands during the Pleistocene Ice Ages and finally died out only a few thousand years ago. The woolly mammoth was just one of several species, all descended from the first kind, the South African mammoth, which evolved around 5 million years ago in southern Africa. Because the bodies of many mammoths became frozen soon after their deaths, many have remained extremely well preserved tens of thousands of years later when they are discovered. This is particularly true of woolly mammoths in the vast Siberian permafrost. For this reason, we know a great deal about how these animals lived.


The frozen woolly mammoth calf "Yuka". A juvenile from Siberia, it had man-made cut marks.
Southern mammoth molar, on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The tooth had 12–14 enamel ridges, whereas the...Read More >>Southern mammoth molar, on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The tooth had 12–14 enamel ridges, whereas the woolly mammoth, which evolved later, had up to 26 (see image below).

Mammoth evolution

Paleontologists can identify different mammoth species from the number of enamel ridges on their molars, their grinding teeth. The early, primitive species of mammoth had few ridges. The number of ridges increased gradually as new species evolved.

The American president, Thomas Jefferson, is said to be the first person to have used the word “mammoth” as an adjective to describe something enormous. He used it in 1802, when writing about a four-foot (1.2 m) wheel of cheese that had been sent to him.

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