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The former native range of the woolly mammoth spanned from Europe, across Russia, and to North America (in red), and included the ice age land bridge Beringia (light red).

300,000 years of evolution

The mammoth lineage branched from the Asian elephant around 6 million years ago. The earliest fossils are from Mammuthus meridionalis (southern mammoth), which gave rise to Mammuthus trogontherii (steppe mammoth), the largest mammoth to ever live. Then, around 300,000 years ago the Woolly Mammoth, Mammuthus primigenius evolved in eastern Siberia. The Woolly Mammoth spread to North America over the Beringia land bridge. Slightly smaller than living African elephants, it thrived through many ice ages foraging on steppe grasslands until 10,000 years ago when their numbers began to decline. The last Woolly Mammoths survived until about 4,000 years ago on a lone land mass in the Arctic Ocean now named Wrangel Island.

30,000 years of symbolism

Fascination with mammoths is not new. The mammoth is intimately tied to human history. Not only were mammoths hunted, they were also idolized. The oldest figurative art in Europe includes mammoth carvings on mammoth ivory. Cave paintings such as the 32,000-yeaold images at Chauvet Cave in Southern France are among the oldest known art in the world.  Over 100 mammoth paintings dated to about 20,000 years old adorn the walls of Rouffignac cave. Mammoth bones were used to make tools as well as art and were even used in burials. At a 15,000-year-old village in the Ukraine, people constructed four huts out of mammoth bones.

Mammoth bone hut, Mezhyrich, Ukraine. 15,000 years old.

Carved mammoth figurine from Swabian Jura plateau, Germany. 35,000 years old.

Chauvet Cave mammoth art, south France. 30,000 years old.

Rouffignac Cave mammoth painting, France. 20,000 years old.

300 years of paleontology

Mammoth bones were first thought to be the remains of biblical giants, until the physician Hans Sloane identified them as the remains of elephants in 1728. French anatomist Georges Cuvier, in 1796, was the first to suggest that mammoth fossils were not from living elephants, but represented a different species now extinct. Extinction was only a theory at the time. In fact, President Thomas Jefferson was convinced that living mammoths and mastodons would be discovered by the 1803 Lewis and Clark expedition in the unexplored west of the Louisiana Purchase. When the blank spaces on the map of the world were filled in and no living mammoths were found, the idea of extinction elevated from hypothesis to fact. To date, many mammoth skeletons have been unearthed, even wholly preserved mummified carcasses of mammoth calves.

Georges Cuvier alongside his published comparison of the Asian Elephant and Mammoth teeth.

Artist representation of a Mammoth skeleton.

DNA reveals that Columbian and woolly mammoths hybridized

30 years of genetics

The first isolation of mammoth DNA was achieved in 1985. Since then, the mammoth has been the cornerstone species for advancing the field of paleogenomics. Small fragments of mitochondrial DNA were eventually sequenced, confirming the Asian Elephant’s close kinship to the Woolly Mammoth – even closer than to African Elephants. Whole mitochondrial genome sequences of mammoth specimens spanning over 50,000 years have shown that mammoths not only migrated from Asia to North America, but back again. DNA analyses have also shown that Woolly Mammoths hybridized with their larger cousins, the North American Columbian mammoths. Mammoth DNA found in sediment layers has revealed that mammoths survived until 7,000 years ago in the interior of Alaska. Today the whole genome sequences of Woolly Mammoths are providing insight into adaptations for cold climates. Interestingly, the genomes of the last surviving Woolly Mammoths on Wrangel Island appear to reveal the impacts of inbreeding on the genomes of bottlenecked species. Advances in Woolly Mammoth paleogenetics continue to develop at the UCSC Paleogenomics Lab at the University of California at Santa Cruz, under the direction of Dr. Beth Shapiro, author of How to Clone a Mammoth.

Woolly mammoth migration into and out of North America occurred over thousands of years over the Beringian land bridge.