The most (and least) read posts of 2017!

It’s that time of year again when websites shout about their most read blog posts. Of course it’s a little bit of self promotion, but it is also quite interesting to see what has been popular over the last year.

In our little annual tradition we will share with you the top five posts along with the least read five posts of the year. We think it’s quite nice to share the ‘bottom’ five posts to spread a little love to these undiscovered gems. (We should obviously say that these are not the least read because they are not interesting – all our posts are interesting! It might be that they are not as sexy as the big beasts, or that they have not been shared enough. Whatever the reason, these five least read posts are a fantastic little read.)

We really are so very grateful for your continued support by reading this blog and we have loved engaging with so many of you on the blog and on Twitter this last year. We hit 250,000 views on our blog just a few months ago – which is incredible! Thank you readers for your encouragement and support for this blog site.

Least read blog posts of 2017:

  1. When life gives you lemmings… Discover how a classic 1980s video game links to small arctic mammals in Britain. Give these little fury critters a boost!

The Norwegian Lemming (Lemmus lemmus) is just one species of lemming. (Image by Oma Kuva. Public Domain)

2. Big find in little China. An amazing fossil discover in 2017 could put humans in China around 120,000 years ago.

3. Mini-beasts, giants and mega-floods. From beetles to mammoths, fossil evidence can help us to understand when the English Channel formed.

4. Time capsules from the Ice Age: Find out how nature’s collectors have helped to preserve evidence from past environments.

5. Forever young: Like Peter Pan, the Key Deer in Florida almost never grow up. Find out how this beautiful little deer stays youthful throughout their lives.

Most read blog posts of 2017:

  1. A very brief introduction to mammoths: This is a mammoth post. Literally. There were ten species of mammoths from giants to dwarves.

The smallest mammoth that has ever lived, the mighty-mini Cretan Dwarf Mammoth

2. The stuff of night-mares: A clever title. A great post. About a freakin’ enormous horse!

3. Mammoths! Mammoths make it twice in the top five. This post is about our familiar giant, the Woolly Mammoth.

4. The lonely walk to extinction: We are pleased this post has been read quite a lot. It brings home just how vulnerable species are, and how those last few individuals have a very hard, lonely life.

5. Lost as the Moa is lost! This is the second year running this fantastic post has made it into the tope 5. Read it and you will see why!

We wish all our readers are very happy and healthy 2018. And we are looking forward to some exciting things in 2018, and of course, lots of new Beasts to share with you! Ross (@DeepFriedDNA), Rena (@JustRena) and Jan (@JanFreedman)

Follow us on Twitter – @Twilightbeasts 

Posted in Arctic Ground Squirrel, Homo sapiens, Horse, Key Deer, Lemming, moa, Woolly Mammoth, Woolly Rhinoceros | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Nice Beaver!” (redux)

Beavers! Majestic dam makers of Canada. Living on a diet of maple syrup and poutine. Probably. I don’t know.

Much bigger in the past, North America had Castoroides ohioensis, the giant beaver. As big as a bear. With its razor sharp incisors it could have felled trees and predators alike.

Here in Blighty we have a few beavers (Castor fiber) here and there. These prodigal sons have popped up in the Highlands, Argyll, Devon, Tayside. Some are legal beavers, and some are illegal beavers. The beaver population in Argyll, at Knapdale forest, are the product of the first licensed reintroduction of a mammal to Britain. Closely monitored by Scottish Natural Heritage, the Knapdale beavers are recolonisers who have been helped by the Scottish government to return to lands they were only recently removed from. Some of the other beaver populations are of unknown origins, occupying a legal grey area and not offered the same protection. Some of these new beavers have been shot by landowners, who if not actively disgruntled are pretty far from gruntled.

Castor fiber, survived very late in Britain. It only really disappeared in the 16th century, when incessant demand for furs and anal secretions* led to its extirpation.

Anyway, if we go back to the Middle Pleistocene (and why not), there was a big British beaver to be found. Sympatric with Castor fiber, Trogontherium cuvieri had a pretty large distribution from England to China in a fairly narrowly confined band. Its fossils are known from France, the Netherlands, Germany, Russia, although it probably only evolved in the Late Pliocene. It must have had fairly specific climatic tolerances because there are no known fossils from south of the Alps or the Pyrenees. We know it was also a river-dweller as that is where the vast majority of the fossils of this species have been found. While not quite as big as ol’ Castoroides, this was still a sizeable animal. Analysis of skulls show that metrically Trogontherium was nearly 50% bigger than Castor. To put that into some context, the incisors in Trog could be up to seven inches long: that’s as big as the canines of Smilodon fatalis!

Skull of Trogontherium cuvieri by E. T. Newton. Public Domain Image

There has been a lot of discussion about what Trogontherium was doing with its enormous incisors. General consensus today is that it didn’t use them for cutting down trees, like its modern day cousin. The incisors have a different profile; they are more convex and would have acted more like a gauge than a chisel. We actually have fossil trees from East Anglia, from the Middle Pleistocene when both beaver species were around, and they show tooth marks that match Castor rather than Trogontherium. Fossil trees can in fact be a marvellous repository of information about animals of the past: I remember seeing an early Holocene log on display in the National Museum of Scotland, that clearly shows the gnaw marks of a beaver from long ago. It seems likely that Trog used their oversized teeth for digging at roots or in burrowing into the ground.

from Fostowicz-Frelik (2008)

One other weird point of discussion has been what the lips of Trogontherium looked like. Based on bony tubercles preserved on the maxilla above the upper incisors, some scientists reconstructed it with hyper-mobile Jagger lips that could act like tiny fingers to slurp up food. It has often been compared to the coypu (Myocastor coypus) which also has prehensile lips. Coypu are also known colloquially as nutria, and they are native to South America. Thanks to humans they have been spread worldwide, to North America, Africa, and Europe. Bred for their fur, escapes and releases have let them into places where they had no right to be. They used to be a common sight in East Anglia, where many Trogontherium fossils have been found. They terrorised Norfolk from about 1929 until an eradication campaign in the 1960s and 1970s. This along with a series of severe winters helped to wipe them out by the late 1980s. I like to think that this bit of accidental rewilding may have given East Anglia something it hadn’t had since the Middle Pleistocene- a Trogontherium analogue!


*yeah. Beaver anal secretions, called castoreum, have long been used as a medicine and perfume. Even back in Roman times. It is still used in the modern era to give perfumes a “leather” note, so you’ve probably smelt it and not realised. But that’s nothing. You’ve also probably eaten it. Castoreum is still used sometimes today as an additive to give food a vanilla flavour. Enjoy your next ice cream!

Written by Ross Barnett (@DeepFriedDNA)

A link to one of the best sight gags ever, from the Naked Gun (source of this article’s title)

Further Reading:

Fostowicz-Frelik, L. “First Record of Trogontherium Cuvieri (Mammalia, Rodentia) from the Middle Pleistocene of Poland and Review of the Species.” [In English]. Geodiversitas 30, no. 4 (2008): 765-78. [Full Text]

Kurtén, B. Pleistocene Mammals of Europe. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968. [Book]

Mayhew, D. F. “Reinterpretation of Extinct Beaver Trogontherium (Mammalia, Rodentia).” [In English]. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B-Biological Sciences 281, no. 983 (1978): 407-38. [Full Text]

Newton, E. T. “Trogontherium from the Pleistocene of Copford, Essex.” [In English]. Geological Magazine London Dec 6 3 (1916): (322-23). [Full Text]

Owen, R. A History of British Fossil Mammals and Birds. London: John Van Voorst, 1846. [Book]



Posted in Giant Beaver, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tamed: ten species that changed our world

The strong autumn sun shines powerfully on the hills in front of me. Yellows, oranges, reds, and browns light up in a dazzling array of hues, as if the trees themselves are on fire. Three horses munch grass in a field below, oblivious to the beautiful display around them. Silence surrounds everything.

Suddenly, my neighbour’s dog barks, snapping me back to life. I turn around and see my very cheeky looking children, with big smiles on their faces, covered in flour. Hands. Jumpers. Face. There seems to be more flour out of the mixing bowl than in it. Fortunately they have done a good job at mixing together the flour and butter to make the pastry. And there is still enough. Soon the sweet, mouth-watering smell of apple pie will float through the rooms in our house.

Horses. Flour. Dogs. Apples. It’s truly astonishing how many species we use in our every day lives. We take it for granted, but these everyday species were, and still are, key to our very survival. When did we domesticate these key species? How did we? What made us chose them, or did they choose us?

These questions and much more are discussed in Professor Alice Roberts latest book, Tamed: Ten species that changed our world.

A rather excited blogger with his copy of Tamed to review. (Photo by author using a camera balanced on a shelf. 10 second timer. Best photo out of 8 taken.)

This book is an utter delight. Focusing on ten different animals and plants, including ourselves, Roberts traces back the origins for the first evidence we have for domesticating these species. From rice to wheat and horses to cows, we find out how important they were to our survival at key events in human history. It’s not an easy story to tell, but the text is clearly written, and there is a charming poetry to her writing throughout.

The domestication of species, or taming of nature, is simple for us to think about today. We see farms full of sheep, chickens and cows. They are tamed. Millennia ago, it was a different story. The first tamed species was likely a horrendous process of trial and error: hope and disappointment. Roberts tracks the very first evidence for taming these animals in the archaeological record: tiny smears of horse milk on thousand year old broken pottery, signs of a single seed. The archaeology is fascinating and sometimes frustrating because there are natural gaps in what has been preserved, or even sites we have visited.

Horses, for example, should be extinct. They are one of the few remaining mega-fauna still with us today. They were food for humans and most archaeological sites have butchered horse bones. Unlike the woolly mammoths in Europe, or the giant sloths in the Americas, they survived. And there are millions of horses on Earth today. Sometime around 5000 years ago is evidence of horses being tamed close to the Caspian Sea. Bones and residual enzymes from horse milk hint at taming the beast. Milk, food, helping with farming, or just the simple reason that someone jumped onto the back of a horse and rode them, changed the fate of this big beast.

Ice age horses played a key part in the survival of humans in Europe. (Art © Tabitha Patterson)

Clues in the ground give tantalising hints about the first sites of taming the wild. Roberts goes even further, and explores the very building stones of species. Each chapter examines the latest genetic evidence to help answer the riddle of the first tamed animal or plant. I like how it sometimes agrees with the archaeological evidence, and sometimes throws up surprises. Actually the genes that make up our tamed species today show that the road to being tamed was not simple, and in some cases may have been accidental. There are over 7,500 different varieties of apples today. Getting to the core of taming the forbidden fruit needed genetics. And it turns out that although apples have been growing in China for over 2 million years, the ‘tamed’ apples have a huge genetic diversity and show that they are a mix of those Chinese fruits and crab apples. As they spread west they pollinated with wild crab apples. Hybrids like this are seen with wheat, rice and potatoes making the ‘original’ source more complicated than simple.

There are other fantastic quirks to the book too. We find out how the tamed species spread across the globe. The first potatoes from the Americas, to the first apples to the Americas, there are wonderful stories about how these different species are so important in more recent history and the effect they had. Although the famous forbidden fruit in the story of the Garden of Eden is said to be an apple, Roberts shows why actually this isn’t the case. These little links to more recent history, ones were are familiar with, gives each chapter a delightful knowledge burst.

What is a wonderful treat is how each chapter delves into the evidence from the archaeology and the genetics, yet it is cautious to say exactly when and how that very first animal or plant was tamed. It’s a treat because we are normally told that this this or that happened. The taming of nature is not so clear. We can imagine someone 10,000 years ago planting a seed, but as much as the genetics and the evidence in the ground can tell us, we can never know why that person did. We know they did because we see it all around us every day. That legacy of a single person or small group of people lives on today, and was, and still is, vital to the survival of our species.

I have only one qualm with the book – it isn’t really a qualm, more of me being a little spoilt and wanting a little more. As well as a wonderful science writer and scientist, Roberts is also a gorgeous artist. Each chapter begins with the usual title, as would any book. Tamed is different. Above the chapter title are beautiful illustrations of the species about to be discussed. Three blades of wheat. An aurochs skull. Hand drawn in ink, they speak so many words. It would have been wonderful to have seen some more illustrations supporting the text. I can imagine Roberts’ drawings of where the Fertile Crescent is, or some different dog breeds, and they are gorgeous. For some parts of the book illustrations would help the reader visualise the places, or even the genetics, nicely.

I loved this book. I loved the stories, the information. But what I loved most was the message of the book: how to preserve what we have before we lose it forever. Humans have a massive impact on the plant, both locally and globally. With an enormous population of over 8 billion people, we need food to survive. That food is the tamed species we reply on. And they need space to live so we can use them. But at what cost? Clearing rainforests so our tamed species can be farmed is killing life, whole ecosystems. We need to find a balance before too much is lost. Roberts says it much better than I can:

“We’re clever – that’s always been a characteristic of humans. But we need to be cleverer than ever if we’re going to find a way of balancing the voracious appetite of a growing human population, and the hordes of tamed species we need to survive, with biodiversity and wilderness.”

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Further reading:

Roberts, A. (2017) Tamed: Ten species that changed our world. Penguin Random House

Posted in Aurochs, Dog, Horse | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Walking on thin ice

No other animal symbolises climate change like the polar bear does. Just like the dodo has become the standard animal representing extinction, the polar bear has become recognised as the animal signifying our impact on the planet’s rapidly warming climate.

TV programmes, newspapers and magazines all use an image of a polar bear when talking about climate change. There is the classic image of a lone polar bear standing on all fours on a small piece of ice, in the vastness of empty water. The fur is wet, and clearly this large creature is being portrayed as being very cold. Its thick padded, webbed feet, grip onto the freezing ice. The great white bear is looking out longingly to sea, searching for that next piece of ice it can swim to, hoping that there is a tasty seal just lying there waiting.

It is an extremely powerful image. A great creature, losing its home because of our selfishness. It is a stark reminder of the enormous effect we can have on our home; the home of millions of different species, each unique, and each just as beautiful as the next.

A starving polar bear on extremely thin ice, at Svalbard. (Photo by Andreas Weith. Public Domain)

Polar bears belong to a rather remarkable genus in the bear family, Ursus. Species from this group have conquered the northern hemisphere: the brown bear (Ursus arctos) living in North America and Eurasia; the widely distributed American black bear (Ursus americanus); the tree loving Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus); and the one that made its home with the sea and ice, the polar bear (Ursus maritimus). For just one genus, this is hugely successful: species are found all over North America, and Asia, and even the northern cold ice sheets. In the past there have been over a dozen different types of bear placed in this genus, including the giant Cave Bear.

Out of the four living species, the polar bear is the largest. And perhaps the most bizarre.

The beautiful polar bear (Ursus maritimus) in Alaska. (Photo by Alan Wilson. Public Domain)

Polar bears are bears. Bears that hibernate, like other bears. But polar bears dig a den deep underneath the snow, and hibernate inside a snow-den! Their thick hair and layers of fat allow this giant to survive the freezing temperatures. Unlike other bears, the polar bear can swim for a very long time: up to a week non-stop. Their huge padded feet help spread the weight when walking on the ice, and it also helps in swimming. This bear also hunts seals: yes, the polar bear decides to spent a lot of time hunting an animal that is superbly adapted to life in the water. (Polar bears do not solely rely on seals for food. They will eat other animals, including washed up whale carcasses, as recently seen on Wrangel Island.)

Surprisingly, these are a very recent species to appear. Evolving from a population of brown bears, the oldest polar bear fossil so far found is only around 110,000 years old on the Norwegian archipelago, Svalbard. With much of the Arctic Ocean frozen over during the Late Pleistocene, some brown bears slowly took advantage of this dramatic change in environment. The heritage with brown bears is important, because the two species still can produce hybrids. Locked within the genomes of polar bears is a genetic marker that shows all living polar bears alive today are descended from a brown bear –  likely due to polar bear and brown bear mating in the recent past. Researchers had assumed this had been fairly recently, somewhere in Alaska where the two species can overlap. Recent work by geneticist Beth Shapiro and colleagues looked at DNA from brown bears in Ireland. They showed that all polar bears alive today are descended from one Irish female brown bear (and a male polar bear).

The oldest polar bear fossil so far found, dated between 130,000 and 110,000 years old. (Image from Ingolfsson and Wiig, 2008)

Polar bears in Britain and Ireland? It sounds crazy today, but during the Late Pleistocene the world was a drastically different place. The last major glaciation was between 110,000 to 11,700 years ago. (Remember, the ‘ice age’ was not just one long cold stage, but a plethora of cold times, known as glacials, and warm times known as intergalcials.) During this cold time, ice covered much of the Northern Hemisphere, which provided the conditions for brown bears to take advantage of, and we see the first polar bears around this time. With so much ice around, the sea levels were much lower, so animals could move much more freely. Britain itself was at some points covered by glaciers up to two miles thick, as far south as the Thames. This would have been the perfect environment for polar bears. And it seems that around 50,000 years ago one male polar bear met a female polar bear, and their descendants are what we see today.

Monster mysteries are popular all around the world. The legends of Bigfoot, sasquatch, and the Yeti, may all be answered by bear DNA. Samples of hair which have been claimed to belong to these cryptozoological beasts, were taken from across Northern America and the Himalayas and their DNA was analysed. The results showed the hair was actually from a huge variety of real animals, including horses, dogs, cows, and an odd result which we shouldn’t try to think about too much, a human. Some of the results showed that the ‘Bigfoot’ or ‘Yeti’ actually came from Himalayan brown bears. Sadly, the myths of a giant, hairy, bipedal creature is just that: a myth.

This symbolic species owes it’s existence to the incredibly dramatic climate of the last major glaciations. The last 100,000 years or so has not been easy sailing for these animals. The temperature has fluctuated, with the ice sheets waxing and waning which has had an effect on polar bear populations. Today is a different story. Different because of a factor no animals can prepare for: humans. We are having an effect on the whole planet in a way no other species has since maybe stromatolites changed the atmosphere to be more oxygen rich some 2 billion years ago.

There is a reason why polar bears are the symbol for climate change. They have had to cope with temperature changes in the past as their environment shrunk. The difference today is that it is happening fast, faster than natural. Because of our actions, species are unable to respond fast enough to the changes at not just a local level, but at a global level. The polar bear is the poster species for climate change, but there are millions others that are in danger of being lost forever. Climate change is real. It is happening. We al have a responsibility to do what we can.

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Further reading:

Derocher, A. E., Lunn, N. J., & Stirling, I. (2004). ‘Polar bears in a warming climate.’ Integrative and Comparative Biology. 44(2). pp.163-176. [Full article]

Edwards, C. J. et al. (2011) ‘Ancient hydridization and an Irish Origin for the Modern Polar Bear Matriline.’ Current Biology. 21. (15). pp.1251-8. [Abstract only]

Hailer, F., et al. (2012). ‘Nuclear Genomic sequences reveal that polar bears are an old and distinct bear lineage.’ Science. 336(6079). p.344-7. [Abstract only]

Ingolfsson, Ó., & Wiig, Ø. (2008). ‘Late Pleistocene fossil find in Svalbard: the oldest remains of a polar bear (Ursus maritimus Phipps, 1744) ever discovered.’ Polar Research. 28: pp.455-462. [Full article]

Kurten, B. (1964). ‘The evolution of the polar bear, Ursus maritimus Phipps.’ Acta Zoologica Fennica. 108. pp1-30.

Lindqvist, C., et al. (2010). ‘Complete mitochondrial genome of a Pleistocene jawbone unveils the origin of polar bear.’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. 107 (11): pp.5053-5057. [Abstract only]

Liu, S., et al. (2014) ‘Populations genomics reveal recent speciation and rapid evolutionary adaptation in polar bears.’ Cell. 157(4). pp.785-794. [Abstract only]

Posted in Brown Bear, Polar Bear | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

The lonely walk to extinction

Our very species is an oxymoron. When Linnaeus added us to the taxonomic ranks of life, he dubbed humans Homo sapiens: literally meaning ‘wise man’. Sometimes I wonder how ‘wise’ we are. We can send people to live in space, talk to another person instantly across the world; yet we can chop down a rain forest, hunt rare animals for fun, and have seemingly little awareness of our disastrous impact on the planet. So many species have disappeared in the last 10,000 years that our planet is only a fraction of the beautiful diversity that once was. And despite cloning and sexy ‘resurrection’ stories, once a species has become extinct, that’s it, it’s gone.

What is perhaps most frustrating is that through social media we can instantly see another dozen acres of rainforest lost to logging, or we count down the last surviving individuals of a species. Frustrating because we know it is happening yet there is little we can do. And sad because we are witnessing animals disappear right before our eyes with literally the last few numbers counting down to zero.

Even before a species number reaches zero, there is a point where that animal is functionally extinct. Less than a dozen animals left and it is unlikely for that group to grow in numbers and recover. Despite a few individuals still alive in zoos today, the Western black rhino (Diceros biceros lonipes) was declared extinct in 2013. The Javan rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus) has less than 70 individuals left in the wild: this species is already on its way to extinction.

The Javan rhinoceros has been hunted for centuries. This painting by W.F.A. Zimmermann, Library of Congress is from 1861. (Image Public Domain)

Animals need space to roam and numbers to survive. Genetic diversity makes a species strong: larger populations means healthier individuals because there is more genetic diversity. For example if there is an odd mutation in the genes passed on to offspring and that offspring doesn’t survive, in large populations, this gene may only be given to a few individuals; whereas in a small population, this gene could kill the species.

The last surviving woolly mammoths showed signs of a ‘genetic meltdown’. On the small desolate Wrangel Island in Siberia, the woolly mammoths survived until just 3,700 years ago (that’s a whopping 5000 years longer than woolly mammoths anywhere else on Earth). Here a small population of these shaggy giants survived, but research examining the DNA has shown that they were full of mutations. Without other mammoths to breed with bringing in fresh DNA, this population was riddled with mutated genes. There isn’t any evidence that these mutations were especially harmful: these Wrangel Island mammoths were a little smaller than their mainland relatives (an example of island dwarfism, which we have seen before with mammoths). It appears that the last of these iconic beasts disappeared shortly after humans arrived on Wrangel Island.

The iconic, shaggy, woolly mammoth. The last surviving species of the great Mammuthus genus vanishing just 3,700 years ago.

DNA is a pretty fragile bunch of chemicals. It breaks apart pretty soon after an organism dies.  For some extinct animals it is difficult to see if mutations dominated a genome, or even had an effect on the last members of a species. Sometimes odd features in an animal might be preserved as a fossil, which provide evidence of a species struggle for survival. A recent study investigating woolly rhinoceros bones looked at just that.

Researchers examined 32 woolly rhino cervical vertebra for abnormalities, specifically looking for signs of rib growth. This may seem for a strange thing to look for, but it can tell us quite a lot. Apart from the wonderfully placid manatees, and the equally docile sloths, all mammals, from giraffes to mice, have seven cervical vertebrae (the neck vertebrae). A genetic mutation can alter the growth in an embryo changing one neck vertebra to grow into a thoracic vertebra (the vertebrae that hold ribs). The research found a particularly high number of ribs which showed this change: 5 out of the 32 specimens. This is an odd result, because it is particularly high for such a small sample. It does and can happen in animals, including humans, and can shorten the life span of the individual with the abnormality. It does happen, but it is rare. So something must have been going on to cause the high incidence of this genetic mutation.

These two woolly rhinoceros cervical vertebrae are almost completely fused, indicating a genetic abnormality in this individual. (Image van der Geer & Galis)

This study looked at specimens from the North Sea and the Netherlands. (The North Sea was once dry and was a rich ecosystem for Pleistocene fauna. Lots of bones of many Twilight Beasts have been dredged up by fishermen over the years, including mammoths, giant deer, and even a Neanderthal skull fragment.) The time span for the 32 specimens is pretty large: they haven’t been radiocarbon dated, but are from deposits dating between 115,000 to 36,000 years old. The results indicate to the authors that the last populations of woolly rhinoceros were under tough conditions, leading to high prevalence of genetic mutations.

Towards the end of the Pleistocene a lot was changing. Temperatures were fluctuating, eventually warming rapidly. The Steppe environment that sustained so many of the familiar giant European mammals was shrinking: removing low lying grasses and shrubs the thick lips of the woolly rhinoceros were adapted to feasting on. Trees and woodlands grew instead. A quick change in environment like this can put stresses on animals (such as lack of food) causing foetuses to be aborted or grow abnormally. A rapidly changing environment would lead to lower numbers of woolly rhinos,  which likely subsequently increases inbreeding (again causing more mutations). Humans did hunt and eat woolly rhino, and may have had an impact on an already shrinking species.

The glorious Woolly Rhinoceros. One of the most underappreciated Twilight Beasts.

What this new research shows is that species are under more pressures to survive than we might think. We know about the effects of climatic fluctuations and habitat loss, but the damage this does internally is devastating to a species genome: Additional stresses on an animal can cause mutations in genes to become fixed and if a population is too small, then it may be the end of that species. We are an oxymoron. Our species is wise and we have a very good understanding of why species have gone extinct in the past, and even see what happens to the genes of animals when the species is put under pressure. Yet…

The last woolly rhinos may have had the loneliest end out of all the Pleistocene mega-fauna. Like rhinos today, they were solitary animals. To find a mate they may have slowly trekked for miles across frozen desolate land, howling wind, and an endless expanse of nothingness. Those last few may have trekked for years, warm breath puffing out of their nostrils as they slowly trundled along, never finding their mate.

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

*******Postscript: In this post I have said ‘we’ throughout when referring to humans. I know that many of us are very proactive and donate and sign petitions to help save a plethora of animals. I have purposefully used ‘we’ for this post, simply because you will relate to it more. You are not someone who is hunting animals or destroying ecosystems. But together we can all do something about it. **************

Further Reading:

Gunthrie, R. D. (2004), ‘Radiocarbon evidence of mid-Holocene mammoths stranded on an Alaskan Bering Sea island’, Nature. 429. (6993). 746-9. [Abstract only]

Jacobi, R. M. et al. (2009), ‘Revised radiocarbon ages on woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis) from western central Scotland: significance for timing the extinction of woolly rhinoceros in Britain and the onset on the LGM in Central Scotland’, Quaternary Science Reviews. 28. 2551-56. [Abstract only]

Kurten, B. (1968), ‘Pleistocene mammals of Europe’, The World Naturalist. [Book]

Lister, A, & Bahn, P. (2007), ‘Mammoths – Giants of the Ice Age’, (3rd Edition). London: Frances Lincoln. [Book]

Markova, A. K. et al. (2013), ‘New data on changes in the European distribution of the mammoth and woolly rhinoceros during the half of the Late Pleistocene and the Early Holocene’, Quaternary International. 292. 4-14. [Full article]

Stuart, A. J, & Lister, A, M. (2012), ‘Extinction chronology of the woolly rhinoceros Coelodonta antiquitatis in the context of late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions in northern Eurasia’, Quaternary Science Reviews. 51. 1-17. [Full article]

Stuart, A. J. (1982), ‘Pleistocene vertebrates in the British Isles’, Longman Group Limited. [Book]

Sutcliffe, A. J. (1985), ‘On the track of Ice Age mammals’, British Museum (Natural History) [Book]

Van der Geer & Galis, F. (2017). ‘High incidence of cervical ribs indicates vulnerable condition in Late Pleistocene woolly rhinoceroses.’ PeerJ. [Full Article]

Posted in Woolly Mammoth, Woolly Rhinoceros | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Discovering the mammoth: A tale of giants, unicorns, ivory, and the birth of a new science

Mammoth. With one word, we can all conjure up a mental picture of a woolly elephant, tusks curving out and in, possibly in a herd, in a habitat cold and snowy with biting wind and unforgiving snow. Isn’t it weird? No one living has seen this beast alive. Every detail is the result of centuries of painstaking work, often undertaken with the threat of severe danger either from the frigid lands where the remains are found or from meddling with issues at odds with the ecclesiastical authorities. All it takes is one word, yet behind those two syllables lie a story that starts with the Yakuts and native Siberians and goes on to encompass nearly everyone of note in the western history of science for the past half millennium. Finally, John J McKay has brought this fascinating story to the public in his new book “Discovering the mammoth”. This work tells the tale of Teutobochus the giant, unicorns, monsters, Polyphemus the Cyclops, Tsars, empire building, Kings and Queens, Emperors and Regents, peasants, soldiers, conmen and tricksters all linked together by the mammoth.

I really liked this book*. It is by no means an easy read, with a host of characters, locations, and ideas that flit back and forth, forward and backward, but the enthusiasm present in the writing and the constant appearance of famous names intersecting with the main thrust of the narrative make it all worthwhile. Even for someone with a long history of interest in the history of our understanding of the Pleistocene there is much new here to me, and almost certainly to other readers as well. Who knew that Alfred the Great was presented with mammoth ivory by a swashbuckling and widely-travelled Viking named Ohthere in the 9th century? Or that Ambroise Paré, surgeon to the court of France in the 16th century tested the efficacy of unicorn horn (i.e. mammoth ivory) as a panacea by poisoning condemned prisoners and seeing if they got better**? The book is full of fascinating vignettes like this as we see protagonists struggling to throw off the shackles of superstition, magic, and theology to get to the heart of the mysterious mammoth. There are several appearances by Leibniz, famously co-author of calculus with Newton, who had a very strong interest in mammoth studies. Peter the Great also turns up. Curious about mammoths, he issued a royal edict demanding that anyone finding ivory in Russia should search for the rest of the skeleton for inclusion in his Kunstkamera. Vitus Bering, Hans Sloane, Peter Simon Pallas, Voltaire, Darwin, Cuvier, Buffon, and other luminaries all have cameos. It’s really a testament to the depth of scholarship and the strange pull that mammoth fossils have held over people that all these threads can be pulled together within one book.

The Adams mammoth today at the Vienna Natural History Museum. You can clearly see the mummified skin still attached to the head. Image by Monika Ďuríčková via Wikimedia Commons

There are fascinating discussions of the history of explanations for mammoths. From the 2nd century BC works of the Han Dynasty describing a giant rodent that lives underground and dies on exposure to the air, to medieval European explanations of bones found in caves and under fields as Pagan giants, Hannibal’s war elephants, or elephant bodies washed northwards by Noah’s floods. Anyone at all conversant with modern creationist literature will find it somewhat amusing to see many of their arguments pre-empted (and then discarded) by scholars from the renaissance. McKay’s writing is fluid, and he has a good eye for reading between the lines of his source material. In a chapter that discusses the famous Adams mammoth, the first really complete mammoth known to western science, we see this acutely. Named after Mikhail Adams, a Russian naturalist who found himself in northern Siberia at the right time to take advantage of a recently uncovered mummy (and not after President John Quincy Adams, as I had previously blithely assumed). Here McKay deftly discusses how Adams treated the native discoverer Ossip Schumachov, and other members of the Batouline or Evenki people. Claiming credit (and money) for transporting the mammoth back to St Petersburg, this outraged Schumachov enough for him to make the perilous journey from his homeland to St Petersburg to protest that as the real discoverer, his mammoth was a gift and not an object of trade. He was ignored. There is also the ugly, and previously untold fact that in Mikhail Adams conscription of local labour from the Evenki to excavate the mammoth, a considerable percentage of able-bodied men were diverted from Autumn preparations of hunting and storing food that would see them through the unbelievably harsh winter. These stories are untold, but explain why even a century after Adams visit, local peoples hushed up mammoth discoveries for fear of being pressganged into unpaid labour. It is thanks to details and expositions like these that I unhesitatingly say that this book is definitely worth inclusion on the bookshelf of any student of the ice age.

An Evenki family photo taken in 1900. Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons

My only major complaint is that this work would massively benefit from a much closer proofreading than it has received. The prevalence of spelling mistakes, and omissions and duplications of words, seriously takes you out of the flow of the text. In the worst example, pages 132, 133, and 134 all have errors that forced me to re-read the text multiple times instead of enjoying the prose. For reference these are Rynochotherium instead of Rynchotherium, gomophthere instead of gomphothere, and vis plasica instead of vis plastica. Factually, I found nothing to fault except a confused discussion of buffalo and bison on page 158. Buffalo, either genera Syncerus or Bubalus, have never been found in the northern latitudes in the mammoth fauna, whereas bison (American buffalo) are plentiful. I think this confusion stems from the selective quotation of works by Gmelin and Pallas and is not McKay’s error but it still left me scratching my head.

*Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for purposes of reviewing.

**they didn’t.

Written by Ross Barnett (@DeepFriedDNA)


Posted in Cave art, Columbian Mammoth, Deinotherium, Extinction, Mastodon, Palaeoloxodon, Scientific Art, Stegodon, Woolly Mammoth | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A very brief introduction to mammoths

I was in Los Angeles when I first saw him. I stood in his shadow as he towered above me. I didn’t feel fear. Or panic. I felt awe despite being dwarfed. Light bounces off each bone, highlighting the curves, the detail, the sheer size. A gigantic skeleton; the internal frame holding up a body of immense proportions. I recognised each bone as I would old friends: a femur at the top of a back leg, vertebrae running along the back of the animal, ribs protecting what would have been the delicate organs beneath. Yet despite him and I being practically the same bone for bone, his were enormous, thicker, stockier, stronger. What’s more, he had two enormous tusks protruding from his face, which curve dramatically outwards and in on themselves. This magnificent beast was the Columbian Mammoth. A goliath from the past.

How did this giant find itself in Los Angeles when elephants alive today are found in Africa and Asia? Was it related to the Woolly Mammoth? Was it hairy? Did humans see these animals? What is a mammoth?

One enormous skeleton. A mountain of questions.

To find the answers we will have to travel back in time and space. Back to Africa. Back to the very beginning of this iconic group of animals.

Yours truly standing under a composite skeleton of a magnificent Columbian Mammoth. The specimen is on display at the Page Museum, La Brea. This incredible museum and active excavation site is sat right in the middle of busy LA. (Photo by random museum visitor)

Mammoths belong to the Order Proboscidea, which has its roots back in the African Paleocene around 60 million years ago. (We, for example, are classified in the Order of Primates. We share this Order with the other primates: gorillas, chimpanzees, monkeys, gibbons, lemurs and lorises) The Proboscidea was pretty spectacular and included many weird species, such as the odd pig-hippo creature, Moeritherium and one of the largest mammals to have walked the Earth, Zygolophodon.

This Order was once astonishingly diverse with 13 different Families holding dozens of different species that migrated into Europe, Asia and the Americas. Just three species of this once successful group survive today; the African Savannah Elephant (Loxodonta africana), the African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) and the Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus), all belonging to the last surviving Family of the glorious Proboscidea; the Elephantidae.

The variety of proboscideans (Artworks by Vladimir Nikolov.
Editing and digital work by Docho Dochev.) (Image from here)

Originating in Africa just around 5 million years ago the Elephantidae has included a huge number of species, from the ‘first elephant’, Primelephas, to the giant extinct straight tusked elephant, Palaeoloxodon. It is special because it is the last surviving Family of a once great and diverse group. It is also special because it includes the mammoths!

The word ‘mammoth’ has slipped into our everyday language as an adjective meaning enormous, massive or huge. (I do quite like it when I hear a friend or colleague describing something as mammoth without realising it.) It has also become synonymous to describe any large hairy ‘elephant’. Forgive me for a moment while I get a little bit passionate about what is and what is not a mammoth.

Mammoths are any species belonging to Mammuthus. Not other large Probosidea or other elephant relatives. Mastodons were not mammoths: they lived on a separate branch to mammoths for around 28 million years. (Mastodons belong to the genus Mammut, confusing, but still not a mammoth.) The freaky Gomphotheres were not mammoths. Nor were the huge Straight Tusked Elephants. Only mammoths were mammoths. These other large beasts may superficially look like mammoths, but they are not. They are, however, wonderful examples of divergence, where similar features are from a shared ancestor (for example, tusks, large flat teeth, massive bodies) evolve to look a little similar later on in different species.

The First Mammoth
Now you know what a mammoth is not. What then makes a mammoth: how do we know what species belong to Mammuthus? One diagnostic features of a mammoth is the inward curving tusks, which you saw in the magnificent Columbian Mammoth we met earlier. The skulls of mammoths were flatter and higher than their relatives, which went arm in arm with more highly crowned teeth for a change in diet. We see the beginning of these features back in the Pliocene around 5 million years ago. Indian elephants and mammoths shared a common ancestor and lolloped their separate ways sometime about 5 million years ago. One of these populations evolved into first true mammoth (Mammuthus subplanifrons). Fossils have been recovered in Eastern and Southern Africa, with associated fossils suggesting a warm, tropical environment. From this warm loving (hairless) giant stomped a whole parade of different species!

The Frist Mammoth (Mammuthus subplanifrons), evolved in Africa around 5 million years ago. (Image by Twilight Beasts)

The African Mammoth
M. subplanifrons, the First Mammoth, disappears around 3 million years ago, around the same time the African Mammoth (M. africanavus) appears. One small population of the First Mammoth evolved into the African Mammoth, while shortly after the rest of the first founding species vanished. Relatively smaller than more recent mammoths, the African Mammoth was distributed across Western Africa. This rather inconspicuous species was around for a long time, with the last evidence from rocks showing it lived until 1.65 million years ago. It disappeared from the African continent, but not without leaving a legacy: the Southern Mammoth.

Not a huge mammoth, but still a mammoth. The African Mammoth (Mammuthus africanavus). (Image by Twilight Beasts)

An enigmatic Mammoth
Before we meet the mighty Southern Mammoth, there is an enigmatic mammoth that was the first species to have left Africa (M. rumanus). Fossils have been found in Britain and in sites in Europe, but with only fossil teeth being discovered so far, it remains poorly known. Sadly, the further back in time we go, the fewer fossils we find (land animals do not often preserve as fossils: carcasses are eaten, bones dragged away from the body, bones trampled on). It may have its origins in Africa, around 3.5 million years ago, likely from the First Mammoth, M. subplanifrons. It did manage to make it out of Africa and into Europe, and it may well have left descendants in the form of the world’s smallest mammoth.

Still hairless, the Enigmatic Mammoth (Mammuthus rumanus) was the first mammoth species out of Africa. (Image by Twilight Beasts)

The Cretan Dwarf Mammoth
On the hot island of Crete, in the early 1900s, the young palaeontologist and explorer, Dorothea Bate discovered some fantastical creatures. An odd sheep that could have been a goat (or was that the other way round?), pygmy hippos, and dwarf mammoths. Yes. A huge oxymoron. But a real creature that once lived. A mammoth that was just 1 meter tall: the Cretan Dwarf Mammoth (M. creticus). How animals get relatively larger or smaller on an island is explained by the Island Rule (or Fosters Rule). Smaller animals on islands are more likely to survive on fewer resources than bigger ones, so natural selection will favour the smaller individuals, and each generation becomes smaller and smaller. Island dwarfism is a fairly common phenomenon and has been seen with dwarf elephants, hippos, deer, and even a species in our own genus, Homo floresiensis.

For a long time, this little animal was thought to have been a mini elephant, descended from the Straight Tusked Elephant. Recent reanalysis by Trowelblazer extraordinaire, Tori Herridge and colleague Adrian Lister, examined in great detail the teeth and showed that it was actually a mammoth! Evidence of its ancestors is sketchy, morphological similarities with the Enigmatic Mammoth, M. rumanus suggest it may push back to 3.5 million years ago. This was the smallest mammoth to have ever lived. For such a remarkable creature relatively little is actually known about it. The teeth indicate that it ate low bushes instead of grass or tree. With the warm Mediterranean climate, this mini-mammoth was not a hairy beast. It is not known for certain when it became extinct, but there is nothing to suggest that humans were responsible. Despite size, this remarkable little animal was a true mammoth. Small but mammoth!

The smallest mammoth that has ever lived, the mighty-mini Cretan Dwarf Mammoth (Image by Twilight Beasts)

So far that is four species of mammoth: the first mammoth M. subplanifrons, the African Mammoth M. africanavus, the enigmatic M. rumanus and the wonderful mini-mammoth, M. creticus. I wouldn’t be disappointed if that was the end of the line of mammoths. These early species were amazing! Mysterious, huge, tiny: successful animals that once lived and breathed.

Things get even more interesting. Evolution happens a lot faster (relatively speaking) when there are more extreme changes in the environment. Think of when the non-avian dinosaurs disappeared: mammals, birds (avian dinosaurs), and a whole range of other groups radiated into lots of new species in a relatively short time of just a few million years. Animals either cannot cope and die, or are lucky enough to have a random mutation that turns out to be useful. Pure luck can either be the saviour, or demise, of a species. The Pleistocene was full of big changes. This whole Epoch, from around 2.6 million years ago to 10,000 years ago was the Ice Age. It was full of extreme changes in the environment, from periods warm enough to allow hippopotamus to bathe in English Rivers, to periods cold enough for massive glaciers to cover all of Canada. The enormously erratic climate of the Pleistocene was one of the main factors in the evolution of the impressive and iconic Ice Age Beasts. This was no doubt the key driving force for the rapid evolution of the later mammoth species.

The spectacular species of mammoths. Not that there were some early evolutionary dead ends. At many times there were more than one species of mammoth lolloping on Earth. Click on the image to see more detail. (Image by Twilight Beasts)

The Southern Mammoth
And it begins sometime around 2.5 million years ago when one population of the African Mammoth evolved into a wandering giant, the Southern Mammoth (M. meridionalis). With earlier mammoths having a smaller number of ridges on their teeth, the Southern Mammoth had between 12 and 14 ridges on top of low crowns – teeth made for pulverising leaves and shrubs. (Think of a pestle and mortar – the massive teeth of mammoths ground down the vegetation into a slush.) Fossils found with Southern Mammoth remains indicate an environment much different from one you would imagine a mammoth to be at home in: deciduous woodlands. Some specimens at sites in much drier climates (such as Israel and Georgia) have been found with evidence of more grassy environments (similar to the African savannah today). Living in these warmer climates also suggests this giant was not a hairy giant, but likely had similar thick skin to elephants around today.

A flatter higher skull than it’s ancestors and more ridges on those thick molars, the mammoth Southern Mammoth (Mammuthus meridionalis) was a magnificent beast. (Image Twilight Beasts)

The Southern Mammoth was not only capable of adapting to different habitats due to those big, ridged molars, it also travelled very far. Remains have been found in Africa, Europe, Russia and China. This very successful species was on Earth for over a million years. With major changes in the Earth’s climate around 1.5 million years ago, many populations died out. Smaller numbers lumbered along, eventually disappearing over the horizon forever 600,000 years ago.

Before their extinction, one population became standard from other populations. Cold, alone, isolated, this group evolved into a mammoth that would cross an ocean.

The Steppe Mammoth
In the cold, dry grasslands of Siberia, a group of the mighty Southern Mammoth adapted to the cold environment. Around 700,000 years ago we see the first fossils of the enormous Steppe Mammoth (M. trogontherii) descended from this Siberian Southern Mammoth population. With more enamel ridges on those massive molars than its predecessor (up to 19 ridges), the Steppe Mammoth was well suited to eating tougher vegetation on the harsh tundra. Very likely to be the first truly hairy mammoth, this species spread across what was becoming a rich fertile ground for grasses and shrubs and a whole variety of different Pleistocene fauna. They moved West, back over Europe, and even into England, with the famous West Runton Mammoth found in 1990. They also moved east, across Siberia, across the Bering Strait, into Canada, and down into North America.

This was the mammoth that conquered the northern hemisphere.

The largest mammoth of them all, the mighty Steppe Mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii). (Image by Twilight Beasts)

Sardinian Dwarf Mammoth
The Steppe Mammoth had a huge range across Europe. Some even made it (probably swam) to the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, with later generations becoming smaller and smaller. Around 450,000 years ago, what was once the largest of the mammoth species, quickly evolved into one of the smallest; the Sardinian Mammoth (M. lamarmorai). Isolated from other populations of Steppe Mammoths, the Island Rule forced this mammoth to shrink to a loveable size. It also allowed other wonderful creatures to evolve, including dwarf hippos and giant hares.

Some islands in the Mediterranean were home to dwarf elephants, descended from the large Straight Tusked Elephant, which may be why the Sardinian Mammoth stayed in Sardinia. (If the Sardinian Mammoth managed to make it to another island, there would have been well established populations of dwarf elephants, putting a lot of competition to this newcomer.) This little Sardinian Dwarf Mammoth disappears around 40,000 years ago. Human remains dated to around 13,000 years old have been found on this island, as well as flints that may date much earlier. The extinction of this wonderfully small mammoth may have been due to the arrivals of humans, although without more detailed work on this species, at the moment we don’t know why it vanished for sure.

If you were to call a mammoth cute, the Sardinian Dwarf Mammoth (Mammuthus lamarmorai) would be that mammoth. (Image by Twilight Beasts)

The Woolly Mammoth
Elsewhere in Europe, as the climate shifted once more, the Steppe Mammoth slowly disappeared. Fossil indicate that 400,000 years ago in Siberia it adapted to the changing, bitter landscape, evolving into the most familiar of all the mammoths, the iconic Woolly Mammoth (M. primigenius). These were true ice age beasts. Thick shaggy hair and layers of fat helped protect them from the icy temperatures. And it was cold. An enormous belt of tundra covered northern Europe all the way across to northern America. Called the Mammoth Steppe, this environment was cold but rich in grasses and shrubs to sustain not only Woolly Mammoths, but giant deer, reindeer, woolly rhinoceros and deadly predators like cave lions and sabre tooth cats.

The Woolly Mammoth was at home on this Steppe, a rich ecosystem on the edge of enormous glaciers. With water locked into the great glaciers during the glacial periods, sea levels were much lower, exposing land and connecting continents, and fossils have been found all over the northern hemisphere. Across Siberia the Woolly Mammoths moved down through Canada and into North America. Yep. The Woolly Mammoth was not just a European species.

At least two human species, Homo sapiens and H. neanderthalensis relied on the Woolly Mammoth for survival. Cut marks on bones, burnt bones, cave art, and even evidence of huts made from mammoth bones show that these hairy giants were key to the survival of these humans. All across the northern hemisphere, mammoth populations plummeted towards the end of the Pleistocene. Human hunting had an effect and sadly this coincided with a warming climate. The end of the Pleistocene saw the great glaciers melt, and the Steppe environment slowly retreat north. The Woolly Mammoth clung on to this shrinking environment for as long as they could. One small population managed to survive a little longer on a small island north of Siberia, Wrangel Island. Isolated from predators, this island was their Eden. Until humans arrived. And just 4000 years ago the last of the amazing line of mammoths vanished forever. 4000 years. There were mammoths alive when humans had started writing 5500 years ago. Mammoths were even around when the great pyramids of Egypt were built. They were an incredible group of animals. And they so very nearly made it to today.

The shaggiest mammoth of them all, the one most adored, the Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) (Image by Twilight Beasts)

The Columbian Mammoth
And what of our giant we met at the beginning of this post? Although Woolly Mammoths did make it across to North America, this giant was a different species: it was the enormous Colombian Mammoth (M. columbi). For a long time it was assumed that the enormous Columbian Mammoth evolved from the Southern Mammoth sometime between 1.8 and 1.5 million years ago. A fairly recent relook at hundreds of mammoth teeth in American museums, dispelled this long held theory. The teeth analysed show that they are incredibly similar to the Steppe Mammoth. Lolloping in herds across the cold, grassy tundra, the Steppe Mammoth reached North America, leaving a descendent, the Columbian Mammoth.

The Columbian Mammoth has thrown up more bizarre facts, questioning what we rely on as identifying a species. Palaeontologists look at the remains of animals and plants to work out the diversity of life on the planet. Most of the time these remains are just tiny parts of the whole creature. Specimens of Columbian Mammoth teeth have been analysed using their DNA which strongly suggest that this species was successfully mating with the Woolly Mammoth, leaving fertile offspring. Normally the definition of a species is a group of animals that can breed and produce fertile offspring. (A donkey and a horse can mate, but the mule is sterile.). As we have more data on more recent animals, the line of what we call a species becomes more blurred. We have seen this with recent genetic studies on Neanderthal remains showing that all non-African humans alive today have some Neanderthal DNA.

Sharing its home with other large Ice Age beasts such as giant sloths and sabre-tooth cats, the Columbian Mammoth was one of America’s true giants. After the arrival of humans to America 15,000 years ago, we see the beginning of the end of this beautiful creature. Several sites have recovered human flint implements alongside Columbian Mammoth remains, and bones showing butchery marks. Sadly, a similar story emerges with the Columbian Mammoth sustaining humans which ended the species.

The mammoth in Los Angeles (and most of North America), the Columbian Mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) (Image by Twilight Beasts)

The Pygmy Mammoth
There is one last species of mammoth. In 1856 off the coast of California, about 15 miles out, the small Channel Islands, fossils of very small mammoths were found. This was the Pygmy Mammoth (M. exilis), dating to 80,000 years ago (the third dwarf mammoth species!). Sea levels were a little lower back then, but there was still a vast gulf between the mainland and the islands: a gulf of about 12 miles. Some Columbian Mammoths actually made the journey by swimming! Probably not just on the one occasion, but a few times. Why they decided to take the plunge will never be known. But we do know that they did. Once there, the Island Rule we have seen twice already went into action. Each generation grew a little smaller.

These were not the smallest of the dwarf mammoths, but they were perhaps the most adaptive. Tiny pollen fossils in sediments and the Pygmy Mammoth’s dung show that these little beasts were not limited to one environment on the islands. The youngest fossils date to the same time as evidence for humans arriving, 13, 000 years ago. Isolated for over 60,000 years with no natural predators, the Pygmy Mammoth was vulnerable to human predation, and they too vanished into the twilight.

The third mini-mammoth, not the smallest, but still pretty darn cute. The Pygmy Mammoth (Mammuthus exilis). (Image by Twilight Beasts)

Mammoths have played a part in the lives of humans for tens of thousands of years. Cave paintings in France and Spain beautifully illustrate these creatures drawn from life. Their flesh and bones helped with our own survival. Their bones have also been used as the canvas for some of the earliest pieces of art. Within a breath of the present day the mighty mammoth has vanished forever.

Today there is a lot of attention being given to resurrecting the Woolly Mammoth. Frozen carcasses from Siberia, Asian elephant surrogates, and recreating a Pleistocene Park are splashed across the media every few months. Should we or shouldn’t we is a debate for another post. The mammoths were an incredible group and to see a living giant trundling across the barren tundra landscape, their long shaggy hair floating up with the soft gust of wind, would be a true sight to behold. Personally, we should spend our efforts on protecting the species that are with us today. The last line of an incredible Order of animals are threatened by poaching and habitat loss. If we are not careful, the beautiful elephants too will become another iconic animal our grandchildren will never see, only dream about. The mammoths had their time. Our planet is for the creatures that share it with us today.

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Our posts on the Proboscidea:

The Steppe Mammoth: The first mammoth of the steppes.

Columbian Mammoth: The last trumpet of a giant.

Woolly Mammoths: Mammoths!

Cloning mammoths: Buttercup the mammoth.

Deinotherium: The Land of the Giants.

Gompothere: The lolloping shovel mouth.

Mastodon: The Nipple Tooth.

Straight Tusked Elephant: An elephant shakes a tree.

Pygmy elephants (Stegodon): Of dwarfs and dragons.

Zyglophodon: Meet Long Tusk.

Further Reading:

Agenbroad, L. D. (2003) ‘New absolute dates and comparisons for California’s Mammuthus exilis.Deinsea. 9(3). pp.1-16.

Agenbroad, L. D., et al. (2007) ‘Mammoths and Humans as Late Pleistocene Contemporaries on Santa Rosa Island.’ Proceedings of the American Geophysical Union. Spring meeting 2007. [Full article]

Agenbroad, L. D. (2010) ‘Mammuthus exilis from the Californian Channel Islands: Height, Mass and Geological Age.’ Proceedings of the 7th Californian Islands Symposium. p.17. [Full article]

Agenbroad, L. D. (2012), ‘Giants and pygmies: Mammoths of Santa Rosa Island, California (USA)’, Quaternary International 255: p.2. [Abstract only]

Bate, D. M. A. (1907). ‘On elephant remains from Crete with description of Elephas creticus sp. n.’ Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London. pp.238-250.

Chang, D., et al. (2017). ‘The evolutionary and phyogeographic histroy of wolly mammoths: a comprehensive mitogenomic anaylisis.’ Scientific Reports. 7:44585. pp.1-10. [Full article]

Ferretti, M. P. (2003), ‘Structure and evolution of mammoth molar enamel’,  Acta Palaeontologica Polonica. 3 48 pp.383–396. [Full article]

Gold, D. et al.. (2014). ‘Attempted DNA extraction from a Rancho La Brea Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi): Prospects for ancient DNA from asphalt deposits, Ecology and Evolution 4 (4). pp.329–336. [Abstract only]

Gunthrie, R. D. (2004), ‘Radiocarbon evidence of mid-Holocene mammoths stranded on an Alaskan Bering Sea island’, Nature. 429. (6993). 746-9. [Abstract only]

Herridge, V. L. & Lister, A. M. (2012) ‘Extreme insular dwarfism evolved in a mammoth.’ Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences. 279. pp.3193-3200. [Full article]

Lister, A. M. (2004), ‘The Impact of Quaternary ice Ages on Mammalian Evolution.’ Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences. 359 (1442). pp.221-241. [Abstract only]

Lister, A, & Bahn, P. (2007), ‘Mammoths – Giants of the Ice Age’, (3rd Edition). London: Frances Lincoln. [Book]

Lister, A. M. & Sher, A. V. (2015). ‘Evolution and dispersal of mammoths across the Northern Hemisphere.’ Mammalian Evolution. 350 (6262). pp.805-809. [Full article]

Lister, A. M., et al. (2005). ‘The pattern and process of mammoth evolution in Eurasia.’ Quaternary International. 126-128. pp.49-64. [Full article]

Lucas, S. G. et al. (1999). ‘Co-occurrence of the proboscideans Cuvieronius, Stegomastodon, and Mammuthus in the lower Pleistocene of southern New Mexico’, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 19 (3). pp.595–597. [Abstract only]

Maglio, V. J. (1973), ‘Origin and evolution of the elephantidae.’ Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. 633. pp.1-149. [Full article]

Markoca, A. K. et al. (2013), ‘New data on changes in the European distribution of the mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros during the second half of the Late Pleistocene and the early Holocene’, Quaternary International. 292. 4-14. [Full article]

Martin, P. S. (1999), ‘Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age extinctions and the rewilding of America’, university of California Press. [Book]

McDaniel, G. E. & Jefferson, G. T. (2006), ‘Dental variation in the molars of Mammuthus columbi var. M. Imperator (Proboscidea, Elephantidae) from a Mathis gravel quarry, southern Texas’,. Quaternary International. 142-143: 166–177. [Abstract only]

Muhs, D, et al. (2015), ‘Late Quaternary sea-level history and the antiquity of mammoths (Mammuthus exilis and Mammuthus columbi), Channel Islands National Park, California, USA’, Quaternary Research. 83. pp.502-521. [Abstract only]

Patterson, D. B. Mead, A. J. & Bahn, R. A. (2012), ‘New skeletal remains of Mammuthus columbi from Glynn County, Georgia with notes on their historical and paleoecological significance’, Southeastern Naturalist 11 (2). pp.163–172. [Abstract only]

Palombo, M. R., et al. (2012) ‘A reappraisal of the dwarfed mammoth Mammuthus lamarmorai (Major 1883) from Gonnesa (south-western Sardinia Italy).’ Quaternary International. 255. pp.158-170. [Abstract only]

Purdy, B. A. et al. (2011), ‘Earliest art in the Americas: Incised image of a proboscidean on a mineralized extinct animal bone from Vero Beach, Florida’, Journal of Archaeological Science 38 (11). p.2908. [Abstract only]

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