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Mammoths

In September 2000, workers at Paxton quarry found a large lumpy bone, with a short, pointed chin and two brick-like teeth: a mammoth’s jawbone! They had also found a small mammoth’s tusk earlier in the month, along with a very large rib bone and a vertebra. The Natural History Museum confirmed that the bones were from a mammoth. Thanks to Andy Current of the Natural History Museum for this information.
Mammoths have a long and glorious history in Britain. The chances are strongly in favour of it being a woolly mammoth Mammuthus primigenius, the last of its lineage. Mammoths were true elephants, equidistant cousins of the African and Indian elephant and characterised by their spirally curved tusks. Early Pleistocene mammoths were extremely large, but the animals got notably smaller over time. The woolly mammoth was about the same size as a modern Indian Elephant and was a specialist grazer. At its maximum extent this species ranged over most of Europe, northern and central Asia and North America as far south as Mexico.

Its feeding activities created and maintained a unique environment - 'mammoth steppe' - a rich, open grassland which was also utilised by other large herbivorous mammals, such as the woolly rhinoceros. Although associated in popular imagination with cold conditions, mammoths do not appear to have been much limited by temperature. They were present in Britain around 170,000 to 200,000 years ago, during a relatively temperate period and then returned in large numbers during the middle of the last cold stage between about 27,000 and 50,000 years ago. They made their final appearance in Britain 11,000 to 12,000 years ago.

Although most mammoths appear to have become extinct at the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago, an isolated population on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean survived until as recently as 4,500 years ago, about the time Stonehenge was built on Salisbury Plain.

The hairiness of mammoths has been a bit overplayed as an adaptation to cold. Elephants stay fairly warm anyway, because of their size. What is remarkable is that the tropical elephants have lost their hair as an adaptation to extreme heat. There is no question that they could survive in very cold climates when they needed to, but they lived in warmer conditions when other environmental conditions suited them.

The famous frozen mammoths of Siberia and Alaska are a lot rarer than is often supposed. There may be about two dozen moderately well preserved carcasses or parts of carcasses known. They nearly all show signs of severe traumatic injury and most appear to have fallen into natural traps caused by surface thawing of the upper layers of the high latitude permafrost in spring, probably in exceptionally warm years.

Huge numbers of mammoth bones and tusks are found in the eroding cliffs of the shores of the Arctic Ocean and in the banks of the main northern Russian rivers. Their ivory once formed the basis of a significant trade and many nineteenth century and early twentieth century knife handles, billiard balls and piano keys were made of mammoth ivory, which has a pleasant yellowish colour. The less well preserved tusks were burned to make 'ivory black' a pigment used in paints.

The majority of British fossil mammoths belong to the 27,000 to 50,000 year old group. This was a time of great climatic instability and it is likely that mammoths migrated into Britain and then left again numerous times within this period. Their feeding activity would have been severely limited by heavy snowfall, so they were probably limited to the drier, colder periods when prevailing winds were coming from the continental interior and snow was less likely. Humans were certainly around in the British landscape during this period - initially populations of Neanderthals and later anatomically modern people like ourselves.
Mammoth bones on display at Visitors' Centre (Jim Stevenson)


Mammoth jawbone and tusk on display at Visitors' Centre (Jim Stevenson)




During the Ice Ages, global ice caps trapped huge amounts of the planet's water on land as ice so sea levels were significantly lower. The North Sea would have been dry land. Large numbers of mammoth bones and teeth have been dredged from the sea bed around Britain.

The mammoth bones are can be viewed during quarry open days and school visits, with some of the tusks on display at the Nature Reserve Visitors' Centre.