Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Woolly Mammoth Fossils

Woollies are really famous.  They have appeared in numerous movies, cartoons, books and TV/cable specials.    A partial list of “credits” include: Ice Age and Ice Age: The Meltdown, Walking With Beasts (BBC), Prehistoric Park, and even two of the Transformer toys (Big Convoy and Universe) turn into Woolly Mammoths.

Woollies  went extinct about 11,500 years ago…living on today in films and literature, legend and ancient cave art, and of course as highly prized fossils.  Fossils range anywhere from a whole skeleton… taking up an entire room in space, to a single molar/tooth that can be easily held in one hand.  The most popular woolly fossil is probably a fully intact tusk…making a dramatic statement in any space it is displayed.  Often small pieces of tusk are recovered and cut and polished to form ancient ivory jewelry pieces.  Less frequently whole bone fossils are found, with leg bones making a particularly dramatic statement in far less space than required for a tusk.

Wooly Mammoth Femur/Leg Bone

Inlaid Wolly Mammoth Ivory Pendant
Many of the so called mega-fauna (really big animals!) of the last ice age experienced a gradual global extinction between 5,000 to 40,000 years ago.  The changing climate forever altered the nature of their habitat, changing the amount and kinds of food sources available.  Where there had previously been pasturelands, forests began to grow…… severely impacting the woolly mammoth and other large herbivores.  Woollies were simply unable to adapt at the speed their changing environment required….the average gestation period for a baby woolly was almost two years, and the mother mammoth often raised the calf for around three years before she again got pregnant.  This total time of five years per infant cycle slowed the animals adaptation to its changing environment, with a result that woolly mammoths were extinct in all but a tiny Siberian island around 11,500 years ago…..and even the tiny band of Siberian island mammoths ceased to be around 4,000 years ago.

Woollies were quite large, mammoth in fact.  An adult male stood up to eleven feet tall at the shoulder and weighed in around six tons.  An adult female was bit daintier at around nine feet tall, weighing in at a svelte 3-4 tons.  Everything about the animals was large…including an appetite that required eating 400 pounds of food a day…giving rise to a nearly as large amount of dung at the end of the eating cycle.  Adult male tusks were typically around eight feet long for a male and 4-5 feet long for an adult female.

Bull woolly mammoths lived a mostly solitary life once they reached adulthood in their early teens, visiting females only during the mating cycle and otherwise shifting for themselves.  Female woollies on the other hand were very social animals, living together in small herds following the lead of the oldest, most experienced matriarch and working together to raise their young.

Woolly mammoth tusks are often called fossil ivory.  Much like a modern elephant, the woollies tusks were made of ivory and after lying in the permafrost for a few tens of thousands of years are occasionally in good enough shape to make some very unique ivory based jewelry.  Unlike elephant tusks there are no legal issues or restrictions in using fossil woolly mammoth tusks.  And while jewelry is a very pretty and elegant use of the tusks, the most dramatic use is when an entire male mammoth tusk is put on display in an office or den.  An eight foot tusk weighs about 100 pounds and makes an incredibly beautiful addition to any man cave décor.
Male Woolly Mammoth Tusk

Touchstone Gallery offers a wide variety of woolly mammoth fossils including entire tusks, leg bones, molars/teeth, jaw sections, slices of mammoth tusks, and some very pretty pendants of polished mammoth ivory inlaid with gold or semi-precious gemstones.  Visit us online at or in person at one of our four galleries during your next visit to Santa Fe, Taos, Sedona or Scottsdale.  We look forward to a chance to share our love of these magnificent animals and the wonderful fossils they have left behind to help tell their story.