9 Wild Facts About the Woolly Mammoth

Woolly mammoths, artwork
Science Photo Library - LEONELLO CALVETTI / Getty Images

Woolly mammoths were the last in a long line of mammoth species. They lived during the Pleistocene and Holocene eras, which means they were still around when human beings first emerged on the planet. We know a great deal about these fascinating ice age beasts because they lived in the far north where their bodies have been well preserved in the permafrost. In fact, woolly mammoth DNA is already in the hands of scientists who are interested in resurrecting the species — but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Here are 9 woolly mammoth facts you may not have known.

1. They Aren't All That Mammoth

Artwork of the Tundra Mammoth

All mammoths were big compared to most modern mammals. But the very biggest of the mammoths (probably Steppe mammoths) were 13 feet tall at the shoulder and weighed more than eight tons. The relatively puny woolly mammoth, by contrast, was only about nine feet tall and weighed a mere five tons.

2. Mammoths Were Around When King Tut Was

Woolly mammoths and early human beings shared the planet for thousands of years. Most mammoths went extinct about 10,000 years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene; however, some stuck around for thousands of years in isolated island locations; the very last woolly mammoths lived on Wrangel Island off the coast of Russia. There were living mammoths on the planet just 3,600 years ago, at the same time that King Tut ruled ancient Egypt.

3. Woolly Mammoths and Elephants Have Nearly Identical DNA

African elephant (male) encounter at dawn
James Warwick / Getty Images

Woolly mammoths and elephants had an awful lot in common — starting with their near-identical DNA. Because of that, they were about the same size, lived on the same foods, gave birth in the same way, and lived in similar groups. However, they were of course many distinctions. While both elephants and mammoths have tusks, mammoth tusks were far larger and much curlier than elephant tusks. Mammoths also had a layer of blubber under their skin to insulate them from the cold, which elephants don't need, and mammoth ears were much smaller than elephant ears, probably to avoid heat loss.

4. Their Home Is on the Steppe

Shepherd with sheep on the steppe tundra in Siberia
Shepherd with sheep on the steppe tundra in Siberia.

Oleh_Slobodeniuk/Getty Images

Woolly mammoths were woolly and blubbery enough to stay comfortable at very cold temperatures. But they didn't stick entirely to the frozen tundra. Instead, they lived in dry regions called steppe-tundras which start as far north as northwest Canada and extend all the way south into sunny Spain.

5. Their Bones Built Homes

Early societies in places like modern-day Ukraine hunted woolly mammoths for their meat. Once the meat was gone, they had the animals' huge tusks and bones to use for a variety of purposes. Some of the first bone-built dwellings were probably built of mammoth bones by Neanderthals in central Europe. The bones were arranged artfully and even painted.

6. Their Tusks Are Made of Ivory

Mammoth tusk

Andrew Lichtenstein / Getty Images

Ancient people used mammoth-tusk ivory to create arrows and the tips of spears as well as sculptures of animals and humans. A mammoth flute was even discovered in southwestern Germany. It's not illegal to collect mammoth tusks, and more are becoming available as the permafrost melts, especially in Russia.

7. Woolly Mammoths Had Nothing Left to Drink

When thinking about why we don't see mammoths wandering around the tundra today, it seems most likely that human hunters killed large numbers of woolly mammoths. While this contributed to their extinction, it most likely wasn't the only cause. A warming climate almost certainly was another factor in the woolly mammoth's extinction. As the climate warmed, habitats changed. According to the New Scientist, their lakes became shallower, leaving the mammoths nothing to drink.

8. They May Have Suffered From Too Little Genetic Diversity

Other research points to higher coastlines as the cause for demise of the woolly mammoth. The last group of woolly mammoths lived on two small islands. As the seawater rose, the mammoths' habitat shrank. The genetic pool became smaller and smaller. In the long run, the mammoths were too genetically compromised to survive.

9. We Can Resurrect the Woolly Mammoth — Right?

Woolly mammoth in snow, illustration

Well, maybe. While scientists have woolly mammoth DNA, that DNA is not active. We have CRISPR technology that would allow us to join bits of mammoth DNA with that of elephants, but those experiments haven't been successful so far. It is theoretically possible that the current technology available to us could allow an elephant to give birth to something similar to (if not identical to) a woolly mammoth.

Of course, the question remains: Is it a good idea to resurrect an extinct animal? The jury is out on that question, but the general consensus is that resurrection carries more risks than potential benefits.

View Article Sources
  1. Groeneveld, Emma. “Woolly Mammoth.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 23 Feb. 2021,

  2. “Dying Woolly Mammoths Were in Genetic Meltdown.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group.

  3. Gearin, Conor. “America's Last Mammoths Died of Thirst on an Alaskan Island.” New Scientist, 1 Aug. 2016.

  4. “Dying Woolly Mammoths Were in Genetic Meltdown.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group.

  5. Worrall, Simon. “We Could Resurrect the Woolly Mammoth. Here's How.” Science, National Geographic, 10 Feb. 2021.