Skip to Main Content
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance logo
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Library logo

Extinct Columbian (Mammuthus columbi) and Channel Island (M. exilis) Mammoths Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Extinct Columbian (Mammuthus columbi) and Channel Island (M. exilis) Mammoths

How Do We Know This?

Since direct observation of a fossil animal's behavior isn't possible, paleontologists use comparison and contrast with living animals for guidance. Tracks can sometimes reveal further clues to behavior. At a fossil site, the mix of plant and animal species gives clues to the ecosystem of that time and place.

Social Behavior

Social groups

  • Assumed to be broadly similar to living elephants since mammoths, like living elephants, have a musth gland (Shoshani 1998)
    • Used for establishing dominance hierarchy in males (Schmidt 1992)
  • At a fossil site in Waco, Texas where many individuals became trapped in a hypothesized flash flood, evidence of herding behavior noted (Fox et al 1992) (Bongino 2007)
    • Adults assumed defensive position around young
    • Two juveniles died, held in the tusks of the adults (as if they were being lifted to safety above the water) 
  • At the Mammoth Site in South Dakota, most trapped individuals are young males
    • Suggests herding behavior like elephants today where young males lack group protection
  • Herd structure suggested for individuals that have similar carbon isotope values in their bones and are buried in same localities
    • Assumption made that members of herd traveled ate same foods, drank same waters, ingested same minerals (Hoppe 2004)
  • Not all individuals buried together represent a herd (Hoppe 2004)
    • Bones may be from animals that have accumulated over time, not from ones that lived together
    • Individuals buried at different times will have different carbon isotopes


Interspecies Interactions

  • No predators preyed on mammoth adults, but young would have been vulnerable to attack by saber toothed cats (Smilodon and Homotherium), the American Lion (Panthera atrox), and the Short-Faced Bear (Arctodus).
  • Like the modern elephants, Columbian Mammoths would have been a keystone species with a profound effect on its ecosystem
    • Mammoths enhanced habitats for other species by maintaining trails, keeping water ways accessible, maintaining open grassy areas.
    • A fossil discovery near Oceanside, California had multiple mammoth sized tracks, plus mammoth and many other species' bones (fox, coyote, tapir, bison, pond turtle, mastodon) on the margins of an oxbow lake (Riney 2006)
  • Hunted by humans
    • Some 20 known North American sites associated with Clovis people's stone points (Martin 2005)
  • Mammoth's feeding habits may explain many anti-herbivory compounds in modern native plant communities (Dudley 1999)

Other Behaviors

  • Columbian mammoths were good swimmers; they crossed open water to reach the Pleistocene Channel Island.
    • Even at lowest sea levels, no land connection existed with the mainland. They had to swim to reach the islands. (Johnson 1978)

Page Citations

Bongino (2007)
Fox et al. (1992)
Hoppe (2004)
Johnson (1978)
Martin (2005)
Riney (2002)
Schmidt (1992)
Shoshani (1998)

SDZWA Library Links