mammoth


mammoth
/mam"euhth/, n.
1. any large, elephantlike mammal of the extinct genus Mammuthus, from the Pleistocene Epoch, having hairy skin and ridged molar teeth.
adj.
2. immensely large; huge; enormous: a mammoth organization.
[1690-1700; < Russ mam(m)ot (now mámont), first used in reference to remains of the animal found in Siberia; orig. uncert.]
Syn. 2. See gigantic.

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Any of several species (genus Mammuthus) of extinct elephants whose fossils have been found in Pleistocene deposits (beginning 1.8 million years ago) on every continent except Australia and South America.

The woolly, Northern, or Siberian mammoth (M. primigenius) is the best-known species because the Siberian permafrost preserved numerous carcasses intact. Most species were about the size of modern elephants; some were much smaller. The North American imperial mammoth (M. imperator) grew to a shoulder height of 14 ft (4 m). Many species had a short, woolly undercoat and a long, coarse outer coat. Mammoths had a high, domelike skull and small ears. Their long, downward-pointing tusks sometimes curved over each other. Cave paintings show them traveling in herds. Mammoths survived until about 10,000 years ago; hunting by humans may have been a cause of their extinction. See also mastodon.

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▪ fossil mammal
      (genus Mammuthus), any member of an extinct group of elephants found as fossils in Pleistocene deposits over every continent except Australia and South America (the Pleistocene epoch began 1,600,000 years ago and ended 10,000 years ago). The woolly, Northern, or Siberian mammoth (M. primigenius) is by far the best-known of all mammoths. The relative abundance and, at times, excellent preservation of this species' carcasses found in the permanently frozen ground of Siberia has provided much information about mammoths' structure and habits. Fossil mammoth ivory was previously so abundant that it was exported from Siberia to China and Europe from medieval times.

      Mammoths figured significantly in the art of primitive man; cave dwellers in Europe realistically depicted herds of these animals. Mammoths were sometimes trapped in ice crevasses and covered over; they were frozen, and their bodies were remarkably well preserved. In fact, cases have been reported in which sled dogs actually were fed the meat from frozen mammoth carcasses that had begun to thaw out of the ice that had held them for almost 30,000 years.

      A variety of distinct species are included in the genus Mammuthus. Most mammoths were about as large as modern elephants. The North American imperial mammoth (M. imperator) attained a shoulder height of 4 metres (14 feet). At the other extreme were certain dwarfed forms whose ancestors became isolated on various islands. Many mammoths had a woolly, yellowish brown undercoat about 2.5 cm (1 inch) thick beneath a coarser outer covering of dark brown hair up to 50 cm (20 inches) long. Under the extremely thick skin was a layer of insulating fat at times 8 cm (3 inches) thick. The skull in Mammuthus was high and domelike. The ears, small for an elephant, were probably adaptively advantageous for an animal living in a cold climate; the smaller amount of exposed surface area diminished heat losses. A mound of fat was present as a hump on the back. This structure is lacking in fossil remains, but evidence for its presence comes from cave paintings. The prominent tusks were directed downward and were very long; in older males they sometimes curved over each other. Mammoth dentition was made up of alternating plates of enamel and a denture that often became worn down by constant back-to-front chewing motions. Remains of arctic plants have been found in the digestive tracts of frozen mammoth carcasses. It is clear that the mammoth was hunted by early North American hunters.

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Universalium. 2010.

Synonyms:
(Elephas primigenus), ,


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