The woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) is a species of mammoth that lived during the Pleistocene until its extinction in the Holocene epoch, and was identified as an extinct species of elephant 1796 by French biologist Georges Cuvier.
Mammoth remains had long been known in Asia before they became known to Europeans in the 17th century. The origin of these remains was long a matter of debate, and often explained as being remains of legendary creatures. Remains of various extinct elephants were generally interpreted, based on biblical accounts, as the remains of legendary creatures such as behemoths or giants. They were thought to be remains of modern elephants that had been brought to Europe during the Roman Republic, for example the war elephants of Hannibal Barca and Pyrrhus of Epirus, or animals that had wandered north.
In 1796, Georges Cuvier was the first to identify the woolly mammoth remains not as modern elephants transported to the Arctic, but as an entirely new species. He argued this species had gone extinct and no longer existed, a concept that was not widely accepted at the time. Following Cuvier's identification, German naturalist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach gave the woolly mammoth its scientific name, Elephas primigenius, in 1799, placing it in the same genus as the Asian elephant. This name is Latin for "the first-born elephant".
By the early 20th century, the taxonomy of extinct elephants was complex. In 1942, American palaoentologist Henry Fairfield Osborn's posthumous monograph on the Proboscidea was published, wherein he used various taxon names that had previously been proposed for mammoth species, including replacing Mammuthus with Mammonteus, as he believed the former name to be invalidly published. Mammoth taxonomy was simplified by various researchers from the 1970s onwards, all species were retained in the genus Mammuthus, and many proposed differences between species were instead interpreted as intraspecific variation.
Osborn chose two molars (found in Siberia and Osterode) from Blumenbach's collection at Göttingen University as the lectotype specimens for the woolly mammoth, since holotype designation was not practised in Blumenbach's time. Russian palaeontologist Vera Gromova further proposed the former should be considered the lectotype with the latter as paralectotype. Both molars were thought lost by the 1980s, and the more complete "Taimyr mammoth" found in Siberia in 1948 was therefore proposed as the neotype specimen in 1990. Resolutions to historical issues about the validity of the genus name Mammuthus and the type species designation of E. primigenius were also proposed. The paralectotype molar (specimen GZG.V.010.018) has since been located in the Göttingen University collection, identified by comparing it with Osborn's illustration of a cast.
The woolly Mammoth was one of the last in a line of mammoth species, beginning with Mammuthus subplanifrons in the early Pliocene. The woolly mammoth began to diverge from the steppe mammoth about 800,000 years ago in East Asia. With a genome project for the mammoth completed in 2015, it has been proposed the species could be revived through various means, but none of the methods proposed are yet feasible.
Its closest extant relative is the Asian elephant. DNA studies show that the Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi), was a hybrid between woolly mammoths and another lineage descended from steppe mammoths. The appearance and behaviour of this species are among the best studied of any prehistoric animal because of the discovery of frozen carcasses in Siberia and Alaska, as well as skeletons, teeth, stomach contents, dung, and depiction from life in prehistoric cave paintings.
The woolly Mammoth disappeared from its mainland range at the end of the Pleistocene 10,000 years ago. Isolated populations survived on St. Paul Island until 5,600 years ago and on Wrangel Island until 4,000-3,500 years ago. After its extinction, humans continued using its ivory as a raw material, a tradition that continues today.
Most specimens of Woolly Mammoths has been found in Siberia, Russia. From Scandinavia and Baltics some 85 specimens are reported, Norway 16, Sweden over 23, Finland 11, Estonia 20, and Latvia about 12.