An elephant herd consists of a matriarch, her sisters, one happy mal17-11-14 mammoth skeletone, and all of their immature offspring. Once juvenile male elephants reach adulthood at approximately 14 years of age, they are expelled from the group and either live alone or pal around from time to time with other bachelors.

As is known for at least one other contemporary species, young male elephants lack life skills and good judgment, and so they may exhibit risky behaviors, including lethal ones, such as getting mired in bogs.

In the meantime and back in the herd, the mothers, sisters, and nieces benefit from collected wisdom, which they pass from one generation to the next. They know where the hazards are and avoid them.

Did mammoths, the extinct close relatives of modern elephants, exhibit the same social organization? There were no Animal Planet photographers or sociologists around to document behavior when mammoths roamed, but the results of a modern test on fossilized mammoth bones suggest an answer.


Several investigative teams have used DNA analysis to determine the sex of the original owners of fossilized mammoth bones. They have gathered these bones from hot springs and bogs and most recently from the edges of retreating glaciers in Siberia. The researchers surmise that the bones found in thawing ice resulted from the animals falling through thin ice, stumbling into crevasses, or drowning in rushing water.

All of the studies show similar results–a disproportionate number of the discovered mammoth bones are from males, usually young adults. It was 13 males to one female in one study, 69 to 26 in another. (The investigators made the reasonable assumption that the male:female ratio for mammoth births was near 1:1.) So what happened to most of the female bones?

It is likely that most of the ladies, wise beyond their years, died of old age and out in the open, where their exposed bones deteriorated rapidly. By contrast, their rambunctious, lonely, and clueless male relatives eventually offered up their bones to paleontologists, thereby giving us a hint of mammoth social structure.

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7 thoughts on “Female Herd Mentality Saved Mammoth Lives

  1. They were very much like humans. The females had much more common sense than the males,and engaged less in risky behavior.
    I enjoyed this article.
    I guess humans probably hunted mammoths to extinction. Today many animals face extinction because of humans.

    1. Hi Jane, I guess it holds true even for ancient mammoths: males from Mars, females from Venus. Extinction is obviously not a new phenomenon and was occurring long before man showed up. None-the-less, our habits should not be contributing to it, even our own. Best wishes, Roy

    2. La Brea Tarpit Museum’s trapped mammoth display shows the mother trapped. However, the actual explanatory legend at the display indicates that more male bones than female have been found! This supports your main idea here and provides an interesting glimpse into the gender prejudices of the man who designed and built the display and of the museum leaders who approved it back in the early days of the museum.

  2. Dear Roy,

    How and why changes come about are always interesting, especially when articulated with humor and insights that connect the dots. You convert learning about bones into insights about behavior that originate in the per-historic and remain relevant and timely today.

    Your work is appreciated.

    Michael Sobel

    1. Thanks, Michael. Many more insights in store. Please recruit more readers so that they can share the revelations with us. And your mother reminds you not to step into any crevasses! Best wishes, Roy

  3. Roy – I have greatly enjoyed your postings so far. I will try to spread the word and get more followers.
    Best regards,
    Bob More

    1. Hi Bob, I am glad you find the blog interesting. Many more fascinating aspects of bone remain for exploration. Best wishes, Roy

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