What Caused The Extinction Of The Woolly Mammoths?

A 3D rendering of what a woolly mammoth looked like.
A 3D rendering of what a woolly mammoth looked like.

The woolly mammoth refers to an extinct species of mammoths that existed during the Pleistocene era until its extinction in the early stages of the Holocene period. In other words, the woolly mammoth existed during the last ice age. In modern times, the animal’s closest relative is the elephant although mammoths preferred much colder environments. More specifically, the animal’s closest relative in modern times is the Asian elephant. The fossil remains of woolly mammoths have been located in all the continents of the world except for South America and Australia. The data on mammoths is scarce and has been debated on so much that mammoths are almost classified as animals of legend.


The woolly mammoth had a similar size to that of elephants. A fully-grown male could stand at a height of between 8.9 and 11.2 feet with an average weight of about 6.6 short tons. This size is almost the same as that of the African elephant, which has a shoulder height of between 9.8 and 11.2 feet. Females were lighter than males with an average weight of 4.4 short tons and a shoulder height of between 8.5 and 9.5 feet. Other physical characteristics include a thick layer of fur, smaller ears compared to present-day elephants, and a shorter tail as well. The animals had a huge dome-like head coupled with a high hump at the shoulder as well as a sloping backside. This sloping back was a feature found only on adults. The coat of the animal was thick and long with a length of around 12 inches on the upper section of the body while the sides and underside had hair with a longer length of about 35 inches.


Evidence suggests that woolly mammoths had a diet almost similar to extant elephants. The animals were herbivores with their diet including things like plant food, which mainly included sedges and grass. In addition, the animals fed on things like herbaceous plants, tree matter, flowering plants, mosses, and shrubs. For the most part, the diet was varied depending on the location of the animal. In a single day, an adult needed around 400 pounds of food for sustenance. Feeding was mainly done with the trunk, which was specially adapted for doing delicate things like picking short grass to indelicate things like uprooting trees. Scientists may have also found evidence to suggest that woolly mammoths fed on their fecal matter in order to foster the growth of microbes for digestion in the intestine.

Distribution and Habitat

The mammoth or the tundra steppe, which was the habitat of the animal, was a massive expanse spanning across the northern region of Asia, the northern region of North America, and most parts of Europe. The habitat had plenty of similarities to the grassy steppes found in Russia but it had more diversity in the composition of flora. Contrary to popular belief, the habitat was not dominated by ice and snow. In fact, it could support other animals such as wild horses, bison, and woolly rhinoceros.


Several theories have been put forward to try to explain the extinction of the woolly mammoth. One of the theories is climate change. As stated earlier, the animals became extinct during the early stages of the Holocene period, which was roughly 10,000 years ago and the period of the last ice age. After the ice age, other animals of that era such as ground sloths, Native American horse and camels, and the saber-toothed cat also began going extinct. Scientists have theorized that all these animals, which were uniquely suited to cold environments, could not cope with the heating of the earth. Furthermore, if climate change contributed to the death of a plant that provided vital nutrients to woolly mammoths, then the number would have been adversely affected. An important thing to note is that climate change had affected the distribution of the animals even before the end of the last ice age. For example, the habitat of the animals some 42,000 years ago was 3,000,000 square miles but reduced to only 310,000 square miles 6,000 years ago due to climate change.

The second popular theory is that human beings were the reason for the woolly mammoth's extinction. After the end of the ice age, it has been argued that the land would have been suitable for human occupation, especially with an increase in human population. As they expanded into newer territories, human beings must have encountered the animals and hunted them for food or for defense. Combined with the alien climate, the hunting by humans led to the eventual extinction of the woolly mammoths. In fact, scientists argue that the population of the animals after the end of the ice age was so low such that the animals would have gone extinct even if humans killed one mammoth every three years. The extra human hunters simply sealed the fate of an already doomed species. Evidence has been found to suggest that the arrival of human beings in some parts of the world coincided with the extinction of the populations of woolly mammoths. An example of such an area was Beringia, which is modern-day Alaska and Yukon.

Other scientists have theorized that meteorites or comets were responsible for their extinction. This theory came to be after research was conducted in North America back in 2007. These scientists have theorized that the same asteroid that hit earth and wiped out large mammals in North America also killed woolly mammoths. The scientists from Brown University in Rhode Island argued that the asteroids would have hit the northern regions of America thus leading to several devastating outcomes. These outcomes included things like the melting of ice sheets, force winds, strong wildfires, and the eventual extinction of the animals.

A fourth possible theory is that of genetic defects since the population of the animals was relatively low. The small pool of animals ensured that there was insufficient genetic diversity for producing hardy woolly mammoths. While there is little evidence to support this theory, it is a possibility that this factor acted in tandem with another factor to wipe out woolly mammoths.


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