Mammoths are one of the most well-known prehistoric mammals. To many people, these giant, furry ancestors of the elephant practically embody the Ice Age. But did you know there was more than one kind of mammoth? In fact, during the Pleistocene epoch, several types of mammoths walked the earth at one time or another. Some of these mammoths even made their way through White Sands, back when this area was a large lake called Lake Otero. Their footprints now make up part of our Pleistocene trackway. The mammoths here at White Sands were Columbian mammoths.
The Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) first showed up in North America about one million years ago. It evolved from an earlier mammoth species that had crossed into North America early in the Pleistocene epoch. Just who exactly this ancestor was is still debated; different sources report southern, imperial, or steppe mammoths as the possible culprit. Regardless of its family history, the Columbian mammoth quickly established itself in North America, migrating throughout almost the entire continent. Its range stretched from Canada all the way down to Nicaragua and Honduras.
The Columbian mammoth did not look quite like the long-haired woolly mammoth that most people are familiar with. It was actually bigger, standing several feet taller than the woolly mammoth. One of the largest mammoths of its time, the Columbian mammoth stood up to 14 feet (over four meters) tall at the shoulder, 13 to 15 feet (4-4.5 meters) long, and possibly weighed-in at a massive 18,000 to 22,000 pounds (8,000-10,000 kilograms)! It also boasted large tusks up to 16 feet (almost five meters) long. Other than size, the major difference between the two mammoths was hair. While the woolly mammoth was named for its thick coat, the Columbian mammoth probably did not have much hair. Its home in North America was generally warmer than the woolly mammoth’s homeland of Eurasia, so it did not need as much hair to stay warm.
The Columbian mammoth did share some similarities with modern elephants. They may have lived in herds like elephants, as some fossil sites suggest. Both mammoths and elephants also share similar ridged teeth, good for chewing plants. These teeth grow in sets, with more sets of teeth growing in as the elephant or mammoth ages. From this scientists have estimated the Columbian mammoth could live up to 70 or 80 years old. The ridged teeth also fit with the mammoth’s diet, which appears to have been grasses, sedges, and brush with some trees and woody plants. Like modern elephants, mammoths would have had to eat a lot of this food each day to fuel their enormous bodies. Columbian mammoths likely spent up to 16 to 18 hours a day eating, consuming up to 150,000 calories and hundreds of pounds a food each day!
The Columbian mammoth walked many places on Earth, even the Tularosa Basin, for hundreds of thousands of years. Though young mammoths faced threats from predators like saber-toothed cats, American lions, and short-faced bears, the species managed to thrive in a variety of habitats across the continent. Eventually though, their time came to an end. The reasons for their extinction are not known for sure, but they are generally thought to have been a combination of hunting by humans and climate change. Whatever the case, the Columbian mammoth went extinct between 13,000 and 10,000 years ago, yet today they are still admired and imagined by both scientists and creative minds.