Canadian Miners Unearth Frozen Baby Mammoth

30,000-year-old mammoth discovered in yukon

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Miners searching for gold in June found a rarer treasure: a baby mammoth. A team of gold miners in the Yukon of Canada discovered the extinct creature encased in permafrost. Mammoths evolved 3 million years ago.

Mammoth on a green field background
The fossil record shows that mammoths originated in Asia before arriving in Europe and North America. Photo by aleks1949 / Shutterstock

Canadian gold miners found a frozen and preserved baby mammoth in June. Although finding mammoth bones has been common in mining, discovering a fully preserved specimen is far less likely. Experts believe the baby mammoth was only a month old when it somehow, tragically, died in the mud some 30,000 years ago during the ice age. The mud quickly encased the creature and the permafrost froze and preserved it. It may be the best-preserved specimen of mammoth in North America.

Mammoths went extinct 10,000 years ago due to climate change and overhunting. In his video series Introduction to Paleontology, Dr. Stuart Sutherland, Professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at The University of British Columbia, provides a clear picture of the great creatures.

Identifying the Mammoths

“Mammoths evolved in Africa during the Pliocene and would enter Europe by about 3 million years ago,” Dr. Sutherland said. “A European species called the Steppe mammoth evolved in Eastern Asia, and by around 1.5 million years ago would cross the Bering Strait across Beringia when sea levels were lower than today.

“The Columbian mammoth would evolve from these pioneering Steppe mammoths and populate an area from the northern U.S. to Costa Rica.”

According to Dr. Sutherland, Columbian mammoths stood four meters (13 feet) at the shoulder and weighed as much as 11 tons. This size would make them about 30% larger than African bush elephants. Due to their massive height and weight, most Columbian mammoths likely wouldn’t have to worry about attacks from any size of predator—although the young and old ones would still be at the most risk.

“Woolly mammoths were smaller than their Columbian cousins, about the same size as an African elephant,” Dr. Sutherland said. “They were covered by coarse hair, probably thicker than that of the Columbian mammoth, and as they lived in the more northerly regions, [they] had small ears—probably an adaptation to conserve heat.”

Preserving the Mammoths

Dr. Sutherland said that Columbian mammoth specimens are well-known because many were caught in natural traps. A sinkhole in South Dakota, known as Hot Springs Mammoth Site, was formed when a cavern collapsed and filled with warm spring water. This made a steep-sided pond; large creatures like the mammoths would slip and fall into it, where they would remain for nearly 30,000 years.

“Another really famous trap site is the La Brea Tar Pits near downtown Los Angeles,” he said. “Here, animals became stuck in asphalt pools that still form at the site today from a natural petroleum seep. After struggling to escape, they would exhaust themselves, eventually dying of starvation.

“The corpses would attract large predators like saber-toothed tigers and dire wolves which would also become stuck—a natural predator trap.”

Despite the sheer number of Columbian mammoths that have been recovered from natural traps, woolly mammoths have been far more likely to be found intact. Since their thicker hair allowed them to live in more northern regions, more of them were caught in permafrost like the recently discovered baby in the Yukon. This means they were better preserved, often even maintaining their internal organs.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily