The Mammoths in Spain Lived Mainly on the Plains

As strange as it might seem, the living African and Asian elephants are only the remnants of what was once a very diverse array of proboscideans. In the not-too-distant past elephants and their closest relatives occupied Africa, Europe, Asia, North America, Central America, and South America, but almost all of them had perished by about 10,000 years ago.* Of these recently-extinct forms the most iconic was the woolly mammoth, Mammuthus primigenius, which was covered in long coats of shaggy hair. They were cold-weather mammoths, inhabiting chillier regions than their North American cousin the Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi), and during the Pleistocene they ranged over much of the northern hemisphere.

*[There were some remnant populations here and there until about 4,000 years ago, but most species of recent fossil elephants were either gone or greatly reduced in number by this time. They disappeared along with many other large mammals such as giant ground sloths. The cause of this Pleistocene mass extinction is still being hotly debated.]


In a new paper published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology scientists Diego Alvarez-Lao, Ralf-Dietrich Kahlke, Nuria Garcia, and Dick Mol have extended the range of the woolly mammoth through the description of a 30,000-40,000 year old site in southern Spain. This Pleistocene fossil site, just south of the city of Granada, represents the southernmost extent of the woolly mammoths' reach in Europe. The site itself is not new. It had been excavated during the 1980's, but unfortunately much of the recovered material was either lost or scattered through museum collections. New material has continued to come out of the site since that time, however, and this has allowed the scientists to confirm the existence of its woolly Pleistocene inhabitants.

As yet no complete skeletons have been recovered from the quarry, but as is often the case with mammoth sites numerous molar teeth and jaws have been found in addition to a few scattered bones from the limbs (see above illustration for a look at some teeth and a jaw). Altogether the bones appear to represent at least four individuals, and the robustness of the jaws and curvature of a tusk suggest that most of these animals were adult males. (As the authors note, however, the bones of females and juveniles may have been found and taken away by quarrymen and collectors. How the site formed, and if there was any bias as to the individuals preserved, is as yet unknown.) When compared to woolly mammoth remains recovered from the North Sea between the UK and the European continent there seemed to be no significant differences between the bones; the animals from Spain were woolly mammoths.


The maximum range of the woolly mammoth during the Late Pleistocene. From the Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology paper.

Yet southern Spain in the time of the woolly mammoths was strikingly different from what it is like today. Not only was it colder about 30,000-40,000 years ago, but the landscape was a nearly treeless steppe. The spread of this open, grassland habitat created an edible highway for the woolly mammoths. Despite the fact that living elephants are mixed feeders that are browsers, woolly mammoths were grazers that fueled their large bodies with grass.

But how did the mammoths get there? According to the authors, woolly mammoths migrated into Spain through the region known as the Basque Country along the northern border with modern-day France. The species then expanded to the west and south, although it appears that mountains to the south of the site discussed in the paper prevented them from reaching Spain's Mediterranean coast.


A sketch of a woolly mammoth by Erwin Christman. From Men of the Old Stone Age by H.F. Osborn.

Once they arrived in southern Spain, though, the mammoths did not stay in the area continuously. They were only vacationing. Their presence at the southern site coincides with a climatic cycle in which the area was cold and dry, suitable conditions for the "mammoth steppe" on which the woolly mammoths depended. This pattern can be seen elsewhere in the world at about the same time. As the grasslands expanded, so did the range of the mammoths, and the rising and falling sea levels opened and closed pathways along the coastlines. Some of these fluctuations even precipitated the evolution of pygmy mammoths in places like the Channel Islands off California, but that is a story for another time.

[H/T to Archy for bringing this story to my attention.]

Ãlvarez-Lao, D., Kahlke, R., GarcÃa, N., & Mol, D. (2009). The Padul mammoth finds -- On the southernmost record of Mammuthus primigenius in Europe and its southern spread during the Late Pleistocene Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 278 (1-4), 57-70 DOI: 10.1016/j.palaeo.2009.04.011

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The species then expanded to the west and south, although it appears that mountains to the south of the site discussed in the paper prevented them from reaching Spain's Mediterranean coast.

It seems odd that the Sierra Nevada should be an insurmountable obstacle if the Pyrenees weren't. As the Med coast ought, then as now, have been warmer than the inland areas, might it simply be that the litoral was outside the mammoth-friendly steppe zone?

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 29 Oct 2009 #permalink

Andreas; The authors briefly mention this in the paper. It might be, as you said, been the end of the "mammoth-friendly zone" rather than a true physical obstacle. And I can't help but wonder if there might be some mammoth bones closer to the coast waiting to be found. ;)

Can we assume that the absence of woolly mammoths in places like Norway and N/NE Canada has something to do with ice sheets and if so why are areas like Alaska and Siberia ice-free?

Most of Siberia would be ice-free for lack of sufficient precipitation to build up ice-sheets. Same for Alaska I would guess.

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 29 Oct 2009 #permalink

Curious about those relict populations of proboscidians. Can you direct me toward more information? Thanks.

Nathan; I might post about some in the near future (and I will definitely be talking about them in my forthcoming book), but in the meantime check out some of the papers available via Google Scholar, particularly the Wrangel Island mammoths.

Karen; Ice sheets would be a limiting factor, but as Andreas pointed out it looks like Siberia and Alaska were grasslands capable of supporting mammoths, horses, and other grazers for a long time. There is another paper (not handy at the moment, unfortunately) that shows the range of mammoths in North America over the past 30,000 years or so and right up until the end mammoths occupied a big swath of land from Alaska down through western Canada and into the U.S.

Nathan, As Brian said, the best known relict population is the one that was on Wrangel Island. Another one was discovered just a few years ago that lived on the Pribilov Islands in the Bering Sea.

Karen, the map above is a good indication of where the ice sheets were (on the north edge) and where the mammoth steppe ended (in the south). The details are better in the old world than in the new. For example, mammoths have been found all the way to the Atlantic and beyond--tusks and bones are periodically dredged up from the fishing banks off New England. A large area there was both dry land and unglaciated.

Were the Carthagenian war elephants descended from Indian exports or a separate African or W Asian species now extinct?

By Antiquated Tory (not verified) on 31 Oct 2009 #permalink

Re. Carthaginian war elephants: There's good evidence from visual art of the time, in particular on Carthaginian coins, showing that their war elephants were definitely African, not Indian, although probably a lot smaller than the classic African savannah elephant that we're all familiar with today.

At the time, populations of wild elephants existed north of the Sahara, in what is now Morocco and Algeria, so the Carthaginians had a ready local supply. They probably lasted until some time in the Roman era. I would imagine they were eventually wiped out by a combination of hunting for ivory and capture for display in the arena.

I can't believe you didn't say a word about how the mammoths helped build the pyramids as "documented" in "10,000BC"...!

Would it be unusual to find a specimen outside of the maximum range shown on the map? I have a mammoth tooth that came out of the ground in the central interior of BC. The spot would have been under ice until c. 12,000 YBP, and hard to reach or under a lake from then until the time when mammoths are done. So I'm wondering if the tooth predates the most recent glaciation, and what it is doing out of the range you've shown.

By Glen Thielmann (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink