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

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

How Do We Know This?

Like living animals, fossil remains of once-living animals are
classified and grouped according to their relationships to each other and to their ancestors.
Many Pleistocene fossils yield DNA which helps scientists determine these animals' similarity to living animals.

Taxonomy and Nomenclature

  • Common Names
    • The word mammoth comes from Russian "mamot", "mamont" and possibly the Tartar word "mamma" meaning "earth".
    • The word for mammoth may reflect a folk belief that the animal whose bones were always found in the ground actually lived in burrows underground (Cohen 2002)
    • The Columbian or American Mammoth was named in honor of Christopher Columbus
    • The Channel Island Mammoth is named for islands off coastal southern California where it lived
  • Scientific Names
    • Mammuthus columbi - see above
    • Mammuthus exilis - exilis is the Latin word for 'small' or 'slender'
  • Three main lineages of mammoths all originated in Europe and Asia
  • Researchers recognized varying number of mammoth species from North America
    • Sixteen species in three genera (Osborne 1942)
    • Four species (Todd & Roth 1996)
    • Seven species (Madden (1981)
  • Some researchers consider the dwarf mammoth a subspecies of M. columbi, others consider it a separate species. (discussion in Roth 1984)

Evolutionary History

  • Earliest elephant-like animals lived 58 million years ago (Shoshani 1998)
  • Mammoths and Asian elephants diverged from African elephants about 4 million years ago. (Lister and Sher 2001)
  • The entire genome for one mammoth species (the Woolly Mammoth) has now been sequenced
    • Mammoths are closer to Asian than to African elephants (Krause et al 2006)
  • Mammoths first lived in Europe and Asia some 2.5 million years ago. (Lister 1996)
  • Early populations of Steppe Mammoths evolved into Columbian mammoths in North America and Wooly Mammoths in Eurasia. (Lister 2007)
  • Mammoths entered the North America about 1.7 to 1.2 million years ago. (Harrington 1984)
  • Mammuthus columbi lived in North America by 1.1 million years ago (McDaniel and Jefferson 2003)
  • Opinions differ on the most recent ancestor of the Columbian Mammoth:
    • Considered to be the Imperial Mammoth (M. imperator) (Shaw and Quinn 1986) (Agenbroad & Mead 1996)
      • But the Imperial Mammoth may instead be simply an early, large Columbian Mammoth (McDaniel & Jefferson 2005) (Marcus & Berger 1984)
    • Considered to be the Southern Mammoth (M. meridionalis) (Agenbroad and Mead 1996)
    • Or recently, considered to be the Steppe Mammoth (M. trogontherii) (McDaniel and Jefferson 2003) (Lister 2007)
      • Since both Columbian and Southern mammoths occur together at Anza-Borrego State Park in California, the Steppe mammoth is more likely to be the Columbian's ancestor (McDaniel 2006).
  • M. exilis existed on the Channel Islands at least 47,000 years ago; they evolved from Columbian mammoths (Agenbroad 1996)
    • About 13,000 years ago they became extinct (Agenbroad et al 2003)
  • M. columbi became extinct about 13,000 years ago
  • Scientists have recently sequenced the nuclear genome of a related mammoth species, the Woolly Mammoth, using hairs from a mammoth mummy from Siberia (Miller and Schuster 2008)


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Proboscidea (mammoths, mastodonts, shovel-tuskers, modern elephants)

Family: Elephantidae (Asian and African elephants, mammoths)

Genus: Mammuthus (Brookes, 1828)                              

Species: Mammuthus columbi (Falconer, 1857) - Columbian Mammoth

Species: Mammuthus exilis (Stock and Furlong, 1928) - Channel Island Mammoth

Page Citations

Agenbroad (2003)
Agenbroad and Mead (1996)
Cohen (2002)
Harrington (1984)
Krause et al. (2006)
Lister (1996)
Lister (2007)
Lister and Sher (2001)
McDaniel (2006)
McDaniel and.Jefferson (2003)
Miller et al. (2008)
Osborne (1942)
Roth (1984, 1996)
Shaw & Quinn (1986)
Shoshani (1998, 2005)
Todd & Roth (1996)

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