Woolly mammoths are symbolic of the ice age because of their large size (about 3 m high at the shoulders; 10 ft.), broad circumpolar geographic distribution, relative abundance during the last glaciation and adaptation to cold environments.
A great deal is known about the appearance of these hairy elephants as a result of the discovery of several well-preserved carcasses in frozen ground in Siberia and Alaska, and from depictions in European Paleolithic cave art.
The woolly mammoth had large (up to 4 m; 13 ft.), curved ivory tusks, a high domed head and sloping back. Their coats were similar to those of muskoxen (Ovibos moschatus), consisting of long (up to 90 cm; 35 in.), dark guard hairs and fine underwool. Under the coat was an insulating layer of fat up to 9 cm (3.5 in.) thick.
Their cheek teeth were massive, and comprised a large series of compressed enamel plates that make excellent grinding mills for the relatively tough, dry grasses on which these animals commonly fed.
These mammoths roamed the northern tundra and cool steppe grasslands of Eurasia and North America during the Late Pleistocene Epoch.
One of the best Canadian specimens is a nearly complete skeleton of an adult female from Whitestone River, Yukon. It died there about 30 000 years ago, according to a radiocarbon date, and was located by following up a legend related by a native elder in the settlement of Old Crow.
Woolly mammoth tracks are clearly recorded in 11 000-year-old sediments at a site near Cardston, Alberta. They yield information on both herd structure and behaviour of these extinct elephants.
Woolly mammoths could not cope with the rapidly changing environment and increasing human predation toward the close of the last glaciation, and most became extinct about 11 000 years ago. However, some survived as late as 3700 years ago on Wrangel Island off the northeastern coast of Siberia.