Small mammals were alive when dinosaurs roamed the earth. No one is quite certain why dinosaurs died out. Some scientists think it could have been a change in the climate. Others have said that there might have been a major disaster, like a comet crashing into the earth. With these large creatures out of the way, the mammals could develop. It took many millions of years. The woolly mammoth lived during one of the ice ages. When scientists named it, they called it Elephus Primigenius. This means 'first born elephant'. Scientist called it this because when fossils were discovered they thought it was a very early kind of elephant, but this was not correct. Other fossil remains which have been discovered show that it was one of the later elephants. Many other elephants had been on the earth before the woolly mammoths appeared. The first true elephants had lived millions of years before the woolly mammoth.
Creature of the Ice Age
There were Ice Ages which lasted for 200,000 years. When this happened the earth was covered with a coat of ice. Plants did grow and the woolly mammoth was able to feed on them. The temperatures were very low, however. To overcome these conditions the woolly mammoth developed a very thick coat of hair. It was a long shaggy coat. To keep the animal warm in these very cold conditions, there were two layers to the coat.
Where did they live?
The remains of the woolly mammoths have been found in the northern parts of Asia, America, and Europe. They lived in the selocations from about the middle of the Pleistocene until the end of that period. The last of the large woolly mammoths probably died out about 10,000 years ago. The Pleistocene was the last period in the Cenozoic era. It is because mammals became the main creatures on the earth during the era that it is often called the 'Age of Mammals'.
How do we know about the mammoth?
We know about most of the animals which lived in the past because of the fossil remains which have been found. Much of what has been written and drawn has been pieced together. There has also been a great deal of guesswork. In the case of the woolly mammoth the situation is different. Although much of the ice disappeared at the end of the last Ice Age, there were still parts of the world which were very cold. They have been very cold since that time. During the Ice Age, mammoths died and were trapped in the ice. The ice has preserved them. Instead of just having bones to examine, as we do with most extinct creatures, whole mammoths have been discovered. With most prehistoric animals we have to guess what the skin looked like. It is very different with the woolly mammoth. Because whole animals have been preserved, we can look at the hair and tusks. In fact, we can look at the entire body.
What did they eat?
Although they were large creatures, woolly mammoths fed on plants. They ate willow, fir, and alder leaves. They also ate the leaves from bushes. We know what the woolly mammoth ate because complete dead animals have been found in Siberia. When the stomach contents were examined many different kinds of leaves were found. Woolly mammoths probably used their tusks to clear snow from the ground so they could get at their food.
What was the earliest elephant like?
The earliest elephants were small. They were like pygmy hippopotamuses or pigs. They grew larger as new species evolved over a long period of time. One of the largest elephants was the imperial mammoth which measured about 13 feet at the shoulder. The woolly mammoth was about 10 feet tall.
Why did the mammoth become extinct?
No one is quite sure why woolly mammoths became extinct. Various suggestions have been made. It could have been due to changes in the climate. When the woolly mammoth lived it was during one of the Ice Ages. The ice gradually melted and the earth got warmer. This change could have affected the woolly mammoth. Man also appeared on the scene. He might have hunted and killed the creature. It is also likely that man moved into the places where mammoths had lived. Man would have used some of their feeding grounds to grow his crops. The woolly mammoths would have been driven out with no where to go.