Despite being extinct, mammoths and dinosaurs are among the most highly recognizable groups of animals. Did mammoths and dinosaurs ever coexist?
Non-avian dinosaurs had died out tens of millions of years before the first mammoths emerged. The extinct species of dinosaurs died out approximately 65 million years ago, while mammoths lived from about two million years ago until four thousand years ago.
For more on mammoths, dinosaurs, and why they never encountered each other, read on.
In comparison to mammoths, which were a closely related group of species, the term “dinosaur” refers to a huge amount of different species. Today, dinosaurs are a staple of history and pop culture, with bones of several hundred different types discovered by paleontologists.
This wasn’t always the case; in fact, the study of dinosaurs is a relatively recent trend. In 1842, English biologist Sir Richard Owen used the term “Dinosauria” to refer to three “fearfully great reptiles”.
These were the Iguanodon, the Hylaeosaurus, and the Megalosaurus, the three dinosaurs known to the people of the time. Interest in dinosaurs grew greatly in the following decades, leading to the discovery of the hundreds of different species that we now know about.
Dinosaurs, in their many forms, inhabited Earth for an extremely long time, during what is classed as the Mesozoic Era. They are believed to have lived from approximately 225 million years ago to roughly 65 million years ago when they suddenly died out.
This means that dinosaurs were the dominant group of animals for an estimated 160 million years. For comparison, the first human ancestor to walk on two legs, the Orrorin tugenensis, is believed to have emerged less than six million years ago.
Dinosaurs as we generally classify them went extinct about 65 million years ago, with scientists debating the reasons. One of the most popular and enduring theories is a global extinction event, particularly an asteroid impact.
While the vast majority of dinosaurs were made extinct, certain species survived and over the tens of millions of years since evolved into modern-day birds. Today, rather than referring to dinosaurs and birds separately, the animals that went extinct 65 million years ago are often referred to as “non-avian dinosaurs”, with the avian dinosaurs surviving and evolving into birds.
In the tens of millions of years since the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs, our planet has undergone significant changes in geography and climate. In time, countless new animal species emerged, including the ancestors of modern-day elephants.
At some point in prehistory (scientists are divided on when), there was a fork in the evolutionary tree of the elephant. From this branch, a new species, the mammoth, evolved.
These early mammoths left Africa and spread into parts of modern-day Europe, Asia, and North America. They adapted to the freezing climate of the most recent Ice Age, with layers of thick hair and long tusks that they used to dig through snow to find food.
Mammoth species were less diverse than the huge range of different dinosaurs but there were still some significant differences between them. In addition to the most famous, the woolly mammoth, there were also the Columbian mammoth and the diminutive pygmy mammoth, which gradually shrunk in size to adapt to its island homes off the west coast of America.
The earliest mammoths are believed to have lived approximately two million years ago, tens of millions of years after non-avian dinosaurs. They thrived across an enormous territory known as the “Mammoth Steppe” until about 10,000 years ago.
Mammoths suffered a sudden and drastic decrease in population around this time and scientists generally agree that it was the result of climate change. In just a few thousand years, as much as 90% of the former mammoth habitat was no longer suitable for them.
As this territory shrunk, mammoths moved further north into the Arctic Circle. The final mammoths lived on islands off the coast of Russia and Alaska, eventually becoming extinct about 4,000 years ago, around the time that the pyramids were being built in Egypt.
Whether or not mammoths and dinosaurs existed at the same time depends on the type of dinosaur. In the case of the traditional, extinct, non-avian dinosaurs, they had died out many millions of years before the mammoth emerged.
If the broader definition, including birds, is applied, dinosaurs not only lived at the same time as mammoths but in fact outlived them.