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Did extinct woolly mammoths have ‘heaters’ to melt snow in their trunks?

By The Siberian Times reporter
24 September 2019

Intriguing evidence from well-preserved calf Yuka of ‘cobra hood-shaped bulge’ on trunk that is absent in modern elephants

Yuka the woolly mammoth. Picture: The Siberian Times


Team of scientists from Yakutsk, Saint Petersburg and Moscow believe that woolly mammoths had a trunk specially adapted to help them in the cold Siberian climate.

But why? What was the purpose?

They examined calf Yuka's straightened trunk and found that ‘in its lower one-third, lateral folds are stretched transversally’ to allow an expansion.

They described how ‘this expansion resembles in shape the ‘hood’ of a cobra’.

Two other specimens of mammoth trunk showed the same feature - the Kirgilyakh mammoth and a trunk fount at Bolshaya Baranikha River.

Yet this phenomenon is not present in modern elephants.





Team of scientists from Yakutsk, Saint Petersburg and Moscow believe that woolly mammoths had a trunk specially adapted to help them in the cold Siberian climate. Pictures: Albert Protopopov, The Siberian Times


A study in Palaeontology Journal has proposed two explanations. 

One theory sees the expansion as linked to warming the exposed trunk tip which lacked hair.

Again, unlike elephants, woolly mammoths had two finger-like projections at the tip of their trunks to grip grasses on which they survived in the harsh cold.

‘The 'trunk fingers' could have been heated, as they curved inside into the expansion of the distal third of the trunk,’ said the study.

The expanding part of the trunk was covered in hair making it like a ‘fur mitten’.



Yuka the woolly mammoth. Pictures: The Siberian Times


The second intriguing theory is that the mammoths kept a store of unfrozen water in their trunk.

According to this version, mammoths must have eaten snow to meet the 120 or so litres of water each day that they needed for survival.

Did this bulging trunk’ melt the snow to make it drinkable'?

The hooded trunk expansion could have provided snow melting before consumption,’ the researchers surmise.

‘Snow was probably pressed by the trunk expansion to the depression in the upper lip to melt it outside the mouth.'



Dima the woolly mammoth calf was 7-8 months old when he died. Dima was discovered in 1977 near the Kolyma river. Pictures: Albert Protopopov


As the head was thrown slightly back, water entered the mouth to continue warming.

‘This scheme of snow melting saved thermal energy compared to… direct snow melting in the mouth.'

They argue that ‘this feature of trunk morphology is undoubtedly an adaptation for life under conditions of a cold climate.

'The woolly mammoth is probably the most extraordinary and specialised member of the family Elephantidae and has a number of unique adaptations lacking analogues among extinct and extant elephants.’

The study was published by the team of Russian scientists - Albert Protopopov, Valery Plotnikov, Evgeny Maschenko, Gennady Boeskorov and Innokenty Pavlov - in Palaeontology Journal, 2015 ().

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