The top 5 myths about woolly mammoths

18 02 2009

Good tidings and well-wishes, faithful readers!!

I’m undergoing a fairly busy academic week, so unfortunately, this blog will be rather quiet for a few days. I realize that I still have yet to post the 2009 WAVP photos and videos, but rest assured, it’ll be done in good time!

Meanwhile, I thought I’d take advantage of a rare idle moment in my schedule to discuss one of the world’s most recognizable and misunderstood prehistoric beasts: the incomparable woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius). As you can probably tell by my banner, I’m a fairly big paleo-proboscidean enthusiast…after all, they’re my favorite group of mammals. Thus, when I received a copy of “Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age” by Adrian Lister and Paul Bahnthis this past holiday season, I was overjoyed and quickly devoured the text (not literally of course, though that would be a sight…). It’s a terrific read for anyone interested in these dynamic creatures and I’d strongly reccomend it.

We know more about these animals than we do about many living species, yet despite having been studied by the scientific community for over two centuries, misconceptions concerning them abound. In light of this, I felt that a post which dealt with some of these myths would be beneficial to the casual paleo-enthusiast. For those of you more well-versed in paleo-literature, none of these points should be “news” in any regard, however, this blog is aimed at non-experts.

And so, without further ado (a rarity for such a verbose writer as myself), I present (in no particular order) the top 5 myths about woolly mammoths:

Myth #1: Woolly Mammoths were huge.

Make no mistake, with a shoulder height of up to 10 feet, Mammuthus primigenius was definately a large animal (slightly smaller than a modern African elephant, Loxodonta sp). However, by proboscidean standards, it was actually on the small side; the Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) with which it divided the North American continent during the Pleistocene, stood a whopping 13 feet at the shoulder. The steppe Mammoth (Mammuthus trognotherii) gave rise to both species and was comparable in size to (though slightly larger than) the Columbian. The most surprising thing about this is that logically, the woolly mammoth should have been huge! Larger animals tend to retain heat better than smaller ones, which would have been a critical advantage in the Ice Age climate. “Woollies” lived considerably farther north than Columbianmammoths, and thus the former would have reaped far greater benefit from a large body size than the latter, yet (for some inexplicable reason) the creatures’ comparative sizes are the opposite of this!

Myth #2: Woolly Mammoths had red coats.

This myth is largely due to the fact that preserved M. primigenius hair tends to be reddish in coloration and thus, the above statement seems logical. However, this is almost certainly a result of oxidation. Egyptian mummies have similarly been found with red hair, yet we know that they were a fairly dark-haired people. Woolly mammoths were very likely ‘dark brunettes’, although according to a recent study, they also possessed the proper genes to (rarely) become blonde.

Myth #3: Woolly mammoths lived in a frozen wasteland.

When one hears the phrase “Ice age”, it’s tempting to imagine that the entire planet was covered in layers of frozen snow, with blizzards occurring daily. In fact, the steppe known to mammoths sported a highly diverse assemblage of plant life, mixing c0ld-tolerant and dry-tolerant species. Also, it’s likely that Pleistocene winters may have often been milder than modern ones: ice ages aren’t caused exclusively by colder winters, but by colder summers. (Consider this, if summers were hot, no matter how much ice accumulated at the poles during the winter, too much of it would have melted away during the warmer months for it to prove even remotely influential). Still, these animals were essentially living fortresses against cold weather, with two layers of fur (some strands of which reached a meter in length), small ears to minimize heat loss, and an eight-inch-thick layer of fat underlying much of their hair.

Myth #4: Frozen mammoths are literally found in giant blocks of ice.

This is by far one of the most widespread of myths surrounding the woolly mammoth, having been popularized by such films as the “Ice Age” series, however, it’s also one of the most demonstrably false. C.V. of Cryology and co. explains:

“The found Mammoths are never found in ice, especially not in glacier ice, a common misconception. Mummies occur in frozen silt, which contains local ice lenses or wedges, of secondary genesis. This ice maybe plays an important role in the desiccation and preservation of the carcass, as moisture, migrated from the body and frozen outside.”

Myth # 5: “Mammoth” and “mastodon” are synonyms for the same animal.

At the onset of this post, I mentioned that none of these entries shouldbe considered ‘news’ to paleontology aficionados, yet this one is sadly well-rooted in popular culture. Describing the differences between these two creatures would effectively fill its own post, so I’ll send you to the following link to research this one:

Note that in my banner at the top of this page, the animal to the far left is an American mastodon (Mammut americanum) while the one in the center is a Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius).

Upcoming post topics: Postosuchus, giant squids, ground sloths, and chameleons.


May the fossil record continue to enchant us all!




2 responses

19 02 2009

I’m not one to bother with a reply to a post but that was excellent!

20 02 2009

Thank you kindly!

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