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Mammoths, long overshadowed by dinosaurs in the ‘extinct giants’ stakes, will soon be in the spotlight, starring in a major new exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum.
Here, Professor Adrian Lister, mammoths researcher at the museum, shares his favourite facts about these ice-age beasts.
1. Furry myths
Most images depict mammoths with auburn fur. Research suggests this may be inaccurate. Most of the frozen carcases we have possess strands of red hair – giving rise to the misconception – but detailed gene analysis and microscopic scrutiny of pigment cells suggest that most mammoths had locks of patchy brown hair.
2. Food for thought
Lyuba is the star of our exhibition, a perfectly preserved 130cm-long frozen baby mammoth. She was found in Siberia seven years ago, with eyelashes and internal organs intact. An autopsy revealed her stomach contained traces of chewed grass that her infant teeth could not have shredded. We think the baby mammoth ate her mother’s dung to obtain the bacteria required for successful digestion.
3. Raging bulls
Mammoths lived in family units based around adult females and their youngsters; adult males led a more solitary existence. At the age of around 15, a male mammoth would begin roaming alone and impregnate several females – much like its living relative, the elephant.
4. They weren’t all big
We think of mammoths as awe-inspiring 12ft tall creatures but small mammoths existed too. The exhibition has the remains of mammoths, found on islands, that only grew to between 3ft-5ft high. We think the genetic isolation on islands and the limited supply of food led to a smaller body size.
5. Terrifying neighbours
Mammoths were not the only impressive ice age creatures. The exhibition displays other giant animals of the era, including sabre-tooth cats, woolly rhinos, and the short-faced bear which stood 10ft tall on its back legs – a size that would dwarf any living bear.
‘Mammoths: Ice Age Giants’, Natural History Museum, London, May 23-September 7. nhm.ac.uk