Last week, a video allegedly showing a live woolly mammoth
stirred frenzied speculation over its authenticity. Even though it
was quickly debunked, it captured the popular imagination. What is
it about these shaggy elephants that enchants us, and why did they
disappear from the earth?
Last week, a very low-quality video of a 'woolly mammoth'
crossing a river in Russia went viral, only to be debunked as a hoax
within a few days.
According to the Sun newspaper, a British tabloid owned by Rupert
Murdoch's News Corporation, the video was taken by a government
engineer. It showed a hazy image of a brownish bear-sized four-
legged creature ambling through the water.
A few days later, the truth emerged. Ludovic Petho, a writer and
videographer who was hiking in Siberia's Sayan Mountains revealed
his footage of the Kitoy River. Although much less blurry, it was
the same footage that appeared in the Sun, but with one big
difference: no mammoth.
Outside of a handful of hard-core cryptozoophiles, Petho's
revelation surprised nobody. Woolly mammoths are widely believed to
have gone extinct on the Russian mainland thousands of years ago.
But still, the video captured the popular imagination, lingering
on the top of news aggregators for several days, even after having
been debunked. What exactly were these huge, hairy elephantine
beasts that roamed Europe, Asia, and North America, co-existing with
modern humans for most of our history. And why, exactly, did they go
The woolly mammoth belongs to the Elephantidae family, a
taxonomic rank that includes the two species of modern-day
elephants, and it lived during the Pleistocene period from about 5
million years ago, into the Holocene period, some 4,500 years ago.
Unlike the American mastodon, the woolly mammoth evolved into
multiple species. Its precise taxonomy is still subject to debate,
but the earliest accounts of its presence are found about 4 million
years ago in Africa, before woolly mammoths started crossing into
The word mammoth comes from the Russian mamont, a word used by
the currently endangered Mansi tribe, which lives in the Russian oil-
producing region of Tyumen Oblast.
The discovery of numerous carcasses, body parts and cave
paintings has given us a clear picture of what these animals looked
like. Unlike most other pre-historic vertebrates, woolly mammoth
fossils are easy to find, thanks to their enormous size and the cold
climates in which they dwelled.
Wooly mammoths are closely related to present-day Asian and
African elephants. They had a towering physical presence, standing
at nine to eleven feet. It is estimated that they weighted between
four and six tons.
The gigantic beast had a total of 24 teeth for both its upper and
lower jaws and had extremely curved tusks, sometimes longer than 13