The woolly mammoth was once widespread across what is now Eurasia and North America. What did these extinct giants eat to survive, and how much of it?
The closest living relatives to the woolly mammoth are Asian elephants, which can eat up to 300 pounds of vegetation every day. Woolly mammoths, which were grazers, likely ate a comparable amount of grass and other plant life before becoming extinct.
For more on what woolly mammoths ate and how much, read on.
Woolly mammoths, like all mammoths, were herbivores and ate plants to survive. Specifically, they were grazers who primarily ate grass and flowers on the ground. Mastodons, who were close relations to mammoths, were browsers and ate leaves.
Mammoth teeth were flat but featured rough ridges, typical of how they ate their food. Mammoths placed grass between their upper and lower molars and then moved their lower jaw forward.
They then lowered their jaw, moved it back, and repeated this grinding motion. This chewing method was ideal for breaking down grass.
Mammoth teeth aren’t the only clue as to what they ate. Many woolly mammoths lived in very cold areas, and some other mammoths lived in dry areas such as what is now Utah. There are examples of both mammoths and their dung being very well preserved.
Bechan Cave in Utah was one of the most staggering finds; the floor of the cave was covered in a layer of dung that was 16 inches deep. Asian elephants are the closest living relative of the woolly mammoth and they are known to excrete between 200 and 300 pounds of dung every day.
Mammoths had six sets of teeth over the course of their lives, with each set being used for an average of five years. They were constantly forming new teeth, with these new teeth slowly pushing forward and replacing the old ones. Scientists believe that the sixth, and final, set of teeth were in place when the mammoth reached about 30 years old.
Once these final teeth were worn down, the mammoth would no longer have any way of chewing grass and would starve. African elephants have similar teeth and have a life expectency of about 70 years, so it stands to reason that woolly mammoths had a similar natural lifespan.
An adult Asian elephant eats between up to 300 pounds of vegetation every day. Given their similarities, it is likely that a woolly mammoth of equivalent size would have eaten a similar amount.
Despite being grazers, scientists believe that the diets of prehistoric herbivores were flexible by necessity. They would eat leaves if necessary, just as browsers would eat grass if there were no other plants to be found.
By mostly eating one type of food, various species could coexist with each other without competing for shared food sources.
For many years, scientists were confounded by the fact that numerous large herbivores such as mammoths and rhinos were seemingly able to survive despite the lack of plant life and scarcity of grass.
By checking pollen data in the locations where mammoth teeth were discovered, they were able to get a clearer picture of what grew in the habitat of each animal. They discovered that mammoths and other prehistoric herbivores had a more varied plant diety than they once believed.
As mammoths relied on flowering plants to survive, this might have played a significant role in their eventual extinction. Mammoths lived on what is now the Arctic tundra, which was once grassland with lots of plant life.
The plants rapidly disappeared about 25,000 years ago but scientists are in disagreement as to whether this was a cause of the mammoths’ extinction or a result of it.
If mammoths ate the flowers, the sudden absence of plant life would have been devastating to their numbers. Conversely, if mammoth numbers decreased for some reason, it would also have had a negative effect on the ability of flowers to grow.
Analysis of preserved mammoth dung has shown that the material made an excellent fertilizer. If mammoths were no longer around to spread their dung on plant life, the flowers would have lost one of their major sources of nutrition.
Both solutions to this chicken and egg situation might be accurate. Mammoths struggled to find food and were also hunted by humans, leading to less dung to fertilize the plants, resulting in the decline of both animal and plant life.