Why There Are No More Woolly Mammoths

What is it about these shaggy elephants that enchants us?

ByABC News
February 15, 2012, 5:09 PM

Feb. 18, 2012— -- Last week, a very low-quality video of a 'woolly mammoth' crossing a river in Russia went viral, only to be debunked as a hoax within a few days.

According to the Sun newspaper, a British tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, the video was taken by a government engineer. It showed a hazy image of a brownish bear-sized four-legged creature ambling through the water.

A few days later, the truth emerged. Ludovic Petho, a writer and videographer who was hiking in Siberia's Sayan Mountains revealed his footage of the Kitoy River. Although much less blurry, it was the same footage that appeared in the Sun, but with one big difference: no mammoth.

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Outside of a handful of hard-core cryptozoophiles, Petho's revelation surprised nobody. Woolly mammoths are widely believed to have gone extinct on the Russian mainland thousands of years ago.

But still, the video captured the popular imagination, lingering on the top of news aggregators for several days, even after having been debunked. What exactly were these huge, hairy elephantine beasts that roamed Europe, Asia, and North America, co-existing with modern humans for most of our history. And why, exactly, did they go extinct?

The woolly mammoth belongs to the Elephantidae family, a taxonomic rank that includes the two species of modern-day elephants, and it lived during the Pleistocene period from about 5 million years ago, into the Holocene period, some 4,500 years ago. Unlike the American mastodon, the woolly mammoth evolved into multiple species. Its precise taxonomy is still subject to debate, but the earliest accounts of its presence are found about 4 million years ago in Africa, before woolly mammoths started crossing into Europe.

The word mammoth comes from the Russian mamont, a word used by the currently endangered Mansi tribe, which lives in the Russian oil-producing region of Tyumen Oblast.

The discovery of numerous carcasses, body parts and cave paintings has given us a clear picture of what these animals looked like. Unlike most other pre-historic vertebrates, woolly mammoth fossils are easy to find, thanks to their enormous size and the cold climates they dwelled.

Wooly mammoths are closely related to present-day Asian and African elephants. They had a towering physical presence, standing at nine to eleven feet. It is estimated that they weighted between four and six tons.

The gigantic beast had a total of 24 teeth for both its upper and lower jaws and had extremely curved tusks, sometimes longer than 13 feet.

Although it is believed that the last woolly mammoths vanished from Europe and Siberia about 12,000 years ago, some new discoveries reveal that a small group survived on St. Paul Island, Alaska until 3,750 B.C. Frozen, mummified mammoths were unearthed at the remote Russian Wrangel Island, where they existed until 1,650 B.C.

Why they disappeared is a matter of contention. Research published in Nature, an international weekly science journal, concluded that "a combination of climatic and anthropogenic [that is, human-caused] resulted to the mammoths' mass extinction."