Expert guide to mammoths: all your questions answered

Discover key facts about the different species of mammoth – where they lived, what they ate, and why they went extinct.

An illustration of a group of Woolly Mammoths feeding on wild grass

With scientists looking into bringing mammoths back from extinction, plus a new BBC documentary, Attenborough and the Mammoth Graveyard, mammoths are in the news again. But who were these giant mammals who once roamed the earth? What did they eat? And why did they go extinct? Get the lowdown on these prehistoric mammals.

How many species of mammoth are known to us?

We’re all familiar with mammoths, but few of us will be aware that there were actually multiple species, surviving across a period from about five million years ago to as recently as just 4,000 years ago. Though the evolution and understanding of mammoths remains the subject of a lot of ongoing research, the taxonomy (or classification) of the group is less concrete than we might imagine.

A herd of Columbian Mammoths migrate to a warmer climate as winter sets in. Corey Ford/Stocktrek Images
A herd of Columbian Mammoths migrate to a warmer climate as winter sets in. © Corey Ford/Stocktrek Images

It currently includes, along with a few possible others, the most widely recognised woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), the Columbian mammoth (M. columbi), its more diminutive relative, the pygmy mammoth (M. exillis), the southern mammoth (M. meridionalis) and, larger than the rest of this ancient clan, the steppe mammoth (M. trogontherii). There are currently 10 recognised species, although classification is always being refined and updated.

When did mammoths go extinct?

The earliest species appeared about 5 million years ago in southern Africa, with the last species dying out about 4,000 years ago, and maybe even as recently as 3,700 years before the present day.

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Where did mammoths live?

Mammoths were found across Asia, Europe (including southern and eastern parts of the British Isles), North America and Africa.

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What did mammoths eat?

Mammoths were herbivores. Depending on the species and their location, they ate a range of vegetation, from cacti and flowers, to herbs, grasses, shrubs and trees, such as larch and alder.

An illustration of a group of Woolly Mammoths feeding on wild grass
A group of Woolly Mammoths feeding on wild grass

How big were mammoths?

The largest species of mammoth, the steppe mammoth, reached a height of up to 4.5m at the shoulder, with tusks extending as long as 4.9m. Estimates vary, but it is thought that they could have weighed as much as 10 tonnes, more than double the weight of the average African elephant, and possibly as much as 14.3 tonnes!

Where were the last remaining populations of mammoths?

On Wrangel Island, off the Russian coast and in the Arctic Ocean. They were cut off from the mainland by rising sea levels.

For how long did our human ancestors and mammoths coexist?

The earliest evidence of people and mammoths interacting comes from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, from 1.8 million years ago, where Homo erectus appears to have eaten African mammoths – but we don’t know whether this was from hunting or scavenging. Humans either hunted or scavenged on mammoths right up until the death of the very last animal, it seems.

What caused mammoths to die out in the end?

A single cause of the extinction of the mammoths has yet to be agreed upon, though it is likely to be a combination of long-term changes in the climate and the subsequent impact on food availability, and hunting. Humans would have undoubtedly contributed to the pressures on the various species of mammoth, and may have played a significant role in the extinction of some local populations.

Mammoth Fossil at Waco Mammoth National Monument in Texas USA
Photo of a Columbian mammoth fossil at Waco Mammoth National Monument in Texas USA.

What’s the difference between mammoths and mastodons?

Mastodons (prehistoric relatives of today’s elephants), mammoths and elephants are all very closely related in terms of their anatomy and genetics. Along with gomphotheres and stegodons, they form part of the taxonomic order Proboscidea.

American mastodon (Mammut americanum) from the Pleistocene epoch of North America (American mastodon)
American mastodon (Mammut americanum) from the Pleistocene epoch of North America. © Nobumichi Tamura/Stocktrek Images

Which habitats are mammoths best preserved in?

Sites that show little disturbance, where little or no decomposition can occur, such as ice and permafrost, and in areas where remains were covered by slow-flowing sediment in freshwater environments.

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