Fossils of the 2012 National Fossil Day Artwork

2012 NFD artwork oval mammoth
The 2012 National Fossil Day artwork features a familiar face: the mammoth. Mammoths are extinct, large, herbivorous mammals from the same family as the modern elephant. The oldest mammoth fossils are from the early Pliocene epoch (about 5 million years ago). Nearly all populations of mammoths were extinct by about 10,000 years ago, although some isolated populations may have lived until about 5,000 years ago. Globally, the Pliocene climate was much cooler and drier than during the Cretaceous, which was home to the mosasaurs and ammonites featured on the 2011 artwork. Following the Pliocene, Earth's climate was cold enough to support large ice sheets on both the North and the South poles—setting the stage for the Pleistocene ice ages. During an ice age, immense sheets of ice advanced from the poles.

Mammoths had long, curved tusks, long ("woolly") hair, and were impressive in size. Standing 4 meters (13 feet) tall at the shoulder, and weighing 6-8 tons on average (up to 12 tons for exceptionally large males), mammoths were emblematic of many other large mammals ("megafauna") that were common during the Pleistocene. Like modern elephants, mammoth herds would likely have been headed by a matriarch, with bulls roaming solitarily or in loose groups after reaching maturity. Mammoth fossils are found across the United States and North America. They are also common in Europe and Asia.
pygmy mammoth fossil dig site
Not all mammoths were, well, mammoth! This fossil is one of the pygmy mammoths discovered in Channel Islands National Park (California). Because they lived on a small island, the mammoths did not attain a very large size. They were typically between 1.5 to 2 meters tall (about 4.5 to 7 ft).

NPS Photo

Extinction of the mammoths occurred at different times in different places. Most populations in Europe, Asia, and North America were extinct by about 10,000 years ago. A few isolated populations existed well into the Holocene, with evidence for a group surviving until about 3700 BCE on St. Paul Island (Alaska), and another until around 2000 BCE on Wrangel Island (Russia). Exactly why mammoths and other megafauna went extinct is still a mystery. A number of factors may have contributed to their extinction, including the warming climate and associated habitat changes of the Holocene, over-hunting and land-use changes by humans, or a combination of factors.

Mammoth or mastodon? While physically similar, mastodons are not part of the same family as mammoths. They do, however, belong to the same order Proboscidea. The primary difference is in the teeth. Mammoths are grazers with high-crowned teeth, allowing them to eat grass and low vegetation. Mastodons are browsers with blunt, conical projections on their molars, which are good for cutting and chewing leaves, fruits, woody plants and shrubs. Also featured in this year's artwork, just behind the mammoth, is the aurora borealis, or "northern lights." This is a high-latitude natural light phenomenon caused by the collision of charged solar wind particles with atoms generated by the Earth's magnetic field high in the atmosphere. The aurora australis is the southern hemisphere equivalent.

Go see them!

Many National Fossil Day partners are well-known for their affiliations with mammoths, including: The Mammoth Site (South Dakota), The Waco Mammoth Site (Texas), Tule Springs Ice Age Park (Nevada), the Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County (California), Ladonia Fossil Park (Texas), the Tate Museum (Wyoming), Big Bone Lick State Park (Kentucky), and Anza Borrego Desert State Park (California), and the Page Museum and La Brea Tar Pits (California). Many museums, parks, and other fossil sites also have mammoth or mastodon fossils on display. For more information on these partners, click on their links from our Partners tab.

National Park units where mammoth fossils have been found include Bering Land Bridge, Cape Krusenstern, Valley Forge, Channel Islands, Florissant Fossil Beds, Glen Canyon and Great Sand Dunes, among others.
Learn more about National Fossil Day and the NFD Logos and Artwork on the official National Fossil Day website.

Part of a series of articles titled National Fossil Day Logo and Artwork – Prehistoric Life Illustrated.

Last updated: September 8, 2020