Ice-Age Mammals

A brown line drawing of a woolly mammoth
Woolly Mammoth

NPS Photo


Woolly Mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius)

The daunting, hairy body of the woolly mammoth is often seen as the beastly embodiment of arctic wildlife of the Pleistocene ice-age. Even scientists agree that the mammoth ruled the tundra and even named the grassland ecosystem in which they lived the Mammoth Steppe. Mammoths were believed to have spread through Europe and crossed Beringia into North America 100,000 years ago.

Mammoths were relatives of the Elephantide family (including Asian and African elephants) and later evolved from the Steppe Mammoths of Siberia. Originally made famous by cave art, their first remains weren't found until 1808 in Siberia; more than 25,000 have been discovered since. The woolly mammoths were herbivores and grazed on the many tundra grasses and vegetation. Despite their placid, non-carnivorous approach to diet, their 200-pound, 12-feet-long, sloping tusks made them a formidable foe to predators.

The reason for their extinction is still largely unknown, but often attributed to a combination of climate change and over-hunting by humans.

What were their basic characteristics? Woolly mammoths were around 9-10 feet tall at the shoulder, had a tuft of hair on the very top of their heads to preserve warmth, a shaggy layer of insulated hair, and a shorter trunk that ended in a split, finger-like appendage used for holding vegetation. The predators of this ancient species were scimitar cats, American lions, and Paleolithic hunters.


Steppe Bison (Bison priscus)

Steppe bison are among some of the most commonly found depictions in cave art throughout Pleistocene time.

These mammals evolved in Eurasia more than 2 million years ago and reached Alaska in Illinoian glacial times around 187-129,000 years ago. Though they became extinct around 11-8,000 years ago, their bodies were not only preserved on stone walls, but often found mummified in the ancient Eurasian and northern regions of North America. Bones of the Steppe bison dating back 15,000 years ago were even found in the Trail Creek Caves of Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.

Little is known about these ice age animals, but the discovery of the well-preserved "Blue Babe" helped scientist to gather what is known today. Blue Babe was unearthed near a mine in Fairbanks in 1979, and was believed to have been killed by American lions nearly 36,000 years ago. The basic characteristics of the steppe bison include large horns with curving tips, long hind legs, slightly larger body size than wood bison, and humped shoulders. Their main predators were American lions, wolves, and Paleolithic hunters and their diet consisted of various grasses found on the tundra.


American Lions (Panthera leo atrox)

This carnivorous Paleolithic creature inhabited the Americas as far north as Alaska and as far south as Peru. These gigantic lions (males were 25% larger than African lions) could reach top speeds of 30 mph and survived in North America until 10,000 years ago.

The ancestors of the American lions were found in East Africa and their remains dated to 1.5 million years ago. As the climate changed, the lions crossed from Asia to Alaska during the Illinoian glacial stage (187-129,000 years ago) and then continued to spread throughout the American continents.

American lion were large in size with sleek and slender limbs, possibly patterned pelts, and small manes. Their main predators were likely Paleolithic hunters, but they succumbed to extinction soon after their plant-eating prey disappeared around 10,000 years ago.

A brown line drawing of a Grizzly, Polar, Giant Short-Faced Bear
Grizzly, Polar, and Giant Short-Faced Bear

NPS Photo

aGiant Short-Faced Bears (Arctodus simus)

This ice-age animal ferociously inhabited the areas ranging from Alaska to Mexico, though the southern bears of this species were smaller compared to their northern counterparts. The king of the carnivorous arctic mammals, the giant short-faced bear showed a preference for regions of drier grasslands and preyed upon muskox, sloths, caribou, and horses.

On average, these bears ranged from 5.5 feet tall to 10 feet long and were capable of short bursts of speeds, though they weighed as much as 2,000 pounds in the fall (a size that fairly dwarfs the modern grizzly).

Typical characteristics include a short body, strong jaws, lean hind legs, and a short broad lion-like muzzle. This mammal was also taller and more muscular than present-day bear species and did not put on fat for the winter.

The predators of the giant short faced bear were Paleolithic hunters, but their inability to evolve seemed to be the biggest hurdle for these solitary scavenger/hunters in survival.

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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