A team of Russian scientists is working hard to resurrect this quintessential Ice Age behemoth. But what if they never disappeared in the first place, and still roamed the Arctic regions on Earth?
What would they eat? Would we hunt them for their tusks? How would they have adapted?
These shaggy haired herbivores are cousins to the modern day Asian elephant. Weighing in at 5.44 metric tons and around 3 to 4 meters (11 to 13 feet) tall, they were similar in size to the African elephant. Still large, but not as mammoth as we like to imagine.
Woolly mammoths only went extinct about 10,000 years ago. Their fossils are found across North America, Asia, Europe and Africa. Cave paintings of these animals reveal they were important to humans in the Ice Age. So what happened to them?
Woolly mammoths were built for sub-zero Arctic habitats. A main reason they were able to thrive during the Ice Age was because of a particularly quirky circulatory flow.
Their counter-current system feeds venous blood through the heart and lungs and arterial blood through the legs and feet. This is opposite to how human blood circulates.
Their blood itself was also special and kept oxygen flowing at frigid temperatures. Sort of like antifreeze in your car.
This unique blood system allowed them to stay warm in ice cold weather and operate off of limited calories while still conserving heat and maintaining blood flow. It didn’t hurt that their exterior hair could grow up to 1 meter (3 feet) long! woolly, indeed!
Is climate change to blame for their extinction?
Scientists haven’t come to a conclusion yet. It is still debated whether climate change, which altered their ecosystems, or humans, who hunted them, were the driving factor of their annihilation.
Probably a little bit of both. Elk, moose, and caribou exploded in population as the Arctic warmed. This created major competition for the woolly mammoth’s prime food sources. But what if they somehow survived?
Our Arctic regions would look a lot different, and not just because there would be jumbo-sized, shaggy animals roaming around.
There would be less elk, moose, and caribou because the woolly mammoth would out compete them for food.
Long before veganism was cool, woolly mammoths ate around 225 kilograms (500 pounds) of plants daily. They would sweep aside snow with their giant tusks, some as long as 1.5 meters (5 feet), to access grass compacted under permafrost.
Besides grasses, they also foraged on forbs, which are flowering plants like poppies and buttercups and much more nutritious than Arctic grass. This grazing style creates a cycle that favors grassland over the current Arctic tundra. The soil compaction of large mammal grazers allows for deeper freezing in the winter.
This prevents the release of greenhouse gases, because firmer terrain keeps grass from totally thawing during summer. So our Arctic regions would physically look different, and could be more biodiverse.
Woolly mammoths themselves would look a little different if they still existed. They’d have to adapt to warming temperatures and beat out their rivals, the other grazers.
Being brawny gives animals dominance over a landscape, but it also requires much more food, which is a vulnerability. So woolly mammoths would be smaller than they used to be, and maybe lose some of that thick blanket of fur with increasing temperatures.
They’d also be a target for the ivory trade. In Siberia, melting permafrost is unearthing woolly mammoth tusks which are worth around $1000 per kilogram ($450 per pound).
Highly sought after ivory is exported to China where it’s used for traditional medicine, ornaments, and jewelry. In order for the species to survive in the wild, they would require legal protection and enforcement.
Even with protection, their population would be low. A female mammoth is not sexually mature until age 15, and her pregnancy with one calf lasts 22 months. While woolly mammoths don’t actually exist today, scientists from around the globe are trying to bring them back. This process is called de-extinction and uses resurrection biology.
None have been completely successful, yet it still begs the question of whether we should be trying. Although it sounds cool to potentially see these amazing creatures back on our planet, we can’t know the ripple effects it may have on ecosystems. And fictional warnings aside, humans don’t have the best track record for reviving past creatures. Jurassic Park, anyone?
A better use of our energy would be to make sure their endangered cousins, the Asian elephants, continue to have wild habitat to survive and are kept safe from illegal hunting. Which would be easy if we set aside half of the planet for wildlife conservation.
- “The last woolly mammoths on Earth had disastrous DNA”. Editor, Laura. 2020. livescience.com.
- “Woolly mammoths are extinct. Here’s why they may be considered ‘endangered.’”. 2019. nationalgeographic.com.
- “Forget the Woolly Mammoth—Let’S Resurrect Some Extinct Plants”. Jed Oelbaum, 2020. Gizmodo.
- “Facts About Woolly Mammoths”. livescience.com.
- “Demand for Ivory Has Spawned a Woolly Mammoth ‘Rush’ In Siberia”. George Dvorsky, 2020. Gizmodo.
- “About Mammoths”. 2020. ucmp.berkeley.edu.
- “In Siberia, Chinese demand for prehistoric tusks fuels ‘mammoth rush”. 2020. phys.org.