Columbian Mammoth

Three adult Mammoths walking with child mammoth in the foreground. A child and adult mammoth are in the background walking together.

NPS Photo

Four mammoth footprints
Once exposed, erosion from wind and rain cause the fossilized mammoth footprints to fade over time.

NPS Photo

Mammoths are one of the most familiar of the ice age mammals. The image of these giant, furry ancestors of the elephant embody the ice age. The Mammoth first arrived in North America over one million years ago, evolving from an earlier mammoth species that had crossed into North America early during the ice age. The mammoth migrated throughout the continent, from Canada down to Nicaragua and Honduras.

The Columbian Mammoth was so tall a person would need to stand on the second floor of a building to touch its head, and weighed the same as five cars stacked on top of each other. It also boasted large tusks that could easy extend the width of two bicycles laid end to end. Unlike its cousin the Woolly Mammoth. The Columbian Mammoth did not have much fur. North America was generally warmer than the Woolly Mammoth’s homeland of Eurasia.

The Columbian mammoth did share some similarities with modern elephants. They may have lived in herds like elephants, as some fossil sites suggest. Based on our knowledge of elephants, the Columbian mammoth might have lived up to 65 years. Both mammoths and elephants also share similar ridged teeth, good for chewing plants. These teeth grew in sets, with new teeth replacing old ones as the animal aged. These ridged teeth were used to grind grasses, brush, trees, and woody plants. Like modern elephants, mammoths would have had to eat a lot of this food each day to fuel their large bodies. Columbian mammoths most likely spent most of their day eating hundreds of pounds of food.

The large appetite of mammoths drew them to the grasslands and abundance of green and lush vegetation growing around Lake Otero. Before the dunes existed, the Tularosa basin was more green and lush. Lake Otero was the center of life for the mammoth. Today we see the footprints of these large animals. The dried remains of Lake Otero preserves many of these footprints. The mammoth is the most common fossil footprint we find on the ancient bed of Lake Otero.

The species managed to thrive in a variety of habitats across the continent, but at the end of the ice age, the climate began to warm and dry out, causing a loss of habitat for these giant beasts. At this same time, humans invaded North America, hunting mammoths and other large animals for food. The combination of these events most likely caused a large decline in population. The Columbian mammoth went extinct between 13,000 and 10,000 years ago.


Lange, Ian M. ice age Mammals of North America: A Guide to the Big, the Hairy, and the Bizarre. Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2002.

“Mammuthus Columbi: Columbian Mammoth.” Accessed July 5, 2015.

Last updated: January 22, 2020

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