Tetrapod Zoology

The tangled mammoths

It’s reasonably well known that fighting male deer are sometimes unable to extricate themselves after tangling their antlers together. Mammoths – which had more strongly curved tusks that living elephants – sometimes had a similar problem, as demonstrated by the famous fighting mammoths from Crawford, Sioux County, Nebraska…

i-20fb636afe69ea75f42215050a9cfe14-tangled_mammoths_Nebraska.jpg

Yes, this fossil is for real (it’s accessioned in Washington, D.C. as USNM 2449). The animals belong to the North American species Mammuthus columbi and must have died after becoming locked together. The fossil has been figured a few times since Boucot (1990) discussed it, most recently in Lister & Bahn (2007), the substantially revised edition of their 1994 Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age. Apparently there’s a ‘Schultz 1963′ that provides more information, but I can’t find this reference (let me know if you track it down). I also recall reading that a squashed fossil canid was preserved beneath one of the specimens (seriously) but cannot locate reference to this in the literature.

If there is an intelligent creator*, it sure does have a fantastic sense of humour.

* Not that I think there is, you understand.

Refs – –

Boucot, A. J. 1990. Evolutionary Paleobiology of Behaviour and Coevolution. Elsevier, Amsterdam.

Lister, A. & Bahn, P. 2007. Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age. Frances Lincoln Ltd, London.

Comments

  1. #1 Jerzy
    November 12, 2008

    I think this fossil featured in some BBC film with CGIs of Ice Age American megafauna. I don’t recall which one, and how to get this film now. I remember it as rather cool. Especially that it was much older than “Walking with Dinosaurs”, about the time when CGI animated beasts were multi-million stuff of few high-budget Hollywood films. Anybody remembers?

  2. #2 Jerzy
    November 12, 2008

    “If there is an intelligent creator*, it sure does have a fantastic sense of humour”

    Alternative idea, proposed by Mr. Jasper Fforde, is that platypuses and seahorses escaped into the reality from the world of book fiction and nobody noticed.

  3. #3 Zach Miller
    November 12, 2008

    I got a chance to look at that Mammoths book at Barnes & Nobel the other day, after stealthly tearing the shrinkwrap off of it. I was extremely disappointed by what I found within. It doesn’t seem like a very academic tome. I guess I was expecting something like the Dogs or Big Cats books. The illustrations in the Mammoths book are…um…what’s a nice word for “awful?”

    Bottom line: I was not impressed.

  4. #4 Cameron
    November 12, 2008

    I also recall reading that a squashed fossil canid was preserved beneath one of the specimens

    That’s just downright Larsonesque – I’m pretty sure there was a gag about a mammoth squishing a dog. Sigh, those were the only cartoons I’ve ever laughed at…

  5. #5 Hai~Ren
    November 12, 2008

    Jerzy: Wild New World? That actually came out after Walking With Dinosaurs; I haven’t had the chance to watch it, but I did borrow the accompanying book, and it did briefly mentioned the tangled mammoths.

    I’m wondering whether there’s any general consensus on how many species of mammoths there were in North America during the Late Pleistocene. Apart from M. primigenius and the tiny M. exilis, I’m still confused by the mess that is M. columbi/ M. imperator/ M. jeffersonii. Are those one species, two, or three?

  6. #6 Jerzy
    November 12, 2008

    Perhaps this one… i thought it was older. Thanks!

  7. #7 Dave Hone
    November 12, 2008

    There is also a superb picture of two greater kudu skulls found locked together in Leuthold’s African Ungulates. The spirals are completley interlocked and they must have starved or more likely been an easy target for predators.

  8. #8 Allen Hazen
    November 13, 2008

    This specimen, or one like it, was the inspiration of a scene in one of Bjorn Kurten’s novels of Ice Age life: I think “Singletusk,” the sequel to “Dance of the Tiger.” In either a preface or an endnote he mentions that the episode is based on an actual fossil (including the squashed canid: canid excitedly circling the dueling mammoths, is underneath when, having stabbed each other in the eye, they topple).

    I’ve long been partial to Kurten’s books: Ice Age fiction by a real paleontologist! In the preface or endnote to “Dance of the Tiger,” he says he wanted to go public with some speculative ideas about the mechanism of the replacement of Neandertals by Moderns– ideas so speculative he didn’t think they were appropriate for more academic publication.

    And his non-fiction “The Cave Bear Story,” i.m.h.o., would be a great introduction to paleontology to give a bright high-school student: it’s probably dated now, but as a picture of the intellectual excitement of the discipline, inventing new ways to use available evidence to answer new questions, it was fantastic.

  9. #9 Dartian
    November 13, 2008

    Allen:

    This specimen, or one like it, was the inspiration of a scene in one of Bjorn Kurten’s novels of Ice Age life: I think “Singletusk,” the sequel to “Dance of the Tiger.” In either a preface or an endnote he mentions that the episode is based on an actual fossil (including the squashed canid: canid excitedly circling the dueling mammoths, is underneath when, having stabbed each other in the eye, they topple).

    Correct. According to Kurten, the canid was a coyote Canis latrans. (Since Singletusk takes place in Europe, Kurten changed the mammoths in the book to woolly mammoths Mammuthus primigenius and the canid to a wolf Canis lupus.)

    Alas, like Darren, I’ve never seen the original reference myself. I’ve only ever been able to locate secondary sources, such as the epilogue to Kurten’s novel. And the homepage of the Trailside Museum of Natural History, where the interlocked mammoths are currently on display, does not mention any crushed coyote.

    It’s always the juiciest stuff that’s hardest to verify…

  10. #10 Don Esker
    November 13, 2008

    Hai-Ren: According to my boss, Dr. Larry Agenbroad (Mr. Mammoth for North America), M. imperator and M. jeffersoni are both synonyms with M. columbi, and just represent slight variation in size & tusk curvature between populations — sub-species level stuff at best.

    Darren: We’ve got Schultz ’63 in our library here at The Mammoth Site. If I get a spare minute some time, I’ll scan it for you.

  11. #11 Darren Naish
    November 13, 2008

    Hi Don – thanks, that would be awesome. Do you have the full citation to hand? I couldn’t find it.

  12. #12 TJ
    November 14, 2008

    Darren,

    If I am not mistaken, the reference you want is

    C. Bertrand Schultz
    “Fossil Hunting Yesterday and Today”
    Museum Notes of the University of Nebraska State Museum
    Number 22, October, 1963

    Apparently it is still available (as paper, not electronically) at
    http://www-museum.unl.edu/pubs/unsmnotes.html

    There is a single picture with caption about the mammoths. I found a poor copy at the library at Berkeley but lack a working scanner. Sorry.

  13. #13 Dartian
    November 14, 2008

    Fossil Hunting Yesterday and Today

    Given the uniqueness of the discovery, perhaps not the best possible title he could have chosen…

    There is a single picture with caption about the mammoths.

    That’s all? Any mention of a crushed canid?

  14. #14 Mark Harris
    January 24, 2010

    These mammoths belong to the University of Nebraska State Museum, and are on exhibit (new since 2006) near where they were found at Ft. Robinson, Nebraska’s Trailside Museum of Natural History found at this link: http://www.trailside.unl.edu/
    These mammoths were found in 1962 and are the only interlocked mammoths found in the world. Please contact me if you need more information.

  15. #15 kittenz
    January 21, 2011

    If there was a coyote or other canid crushed beneath one of the mammoths, I can envision that happening.

    Most likely, the two mammoths would not have died simultaneously; in fact, their deaths may have been slow, miserable affairs. They would have been a powerful attraction to scavengers. A coyote may have attempted to scavenge the dead mammoth when the other one, still living but entrapped, shifted its position and caused the dead weight to fall onto the coyote and kill it. Or possibly scavengers were already consuming the dead mammoth when the other one finally died and fell, trapping and killing one of them.

    I have read that before, about the trapped & crushed canid, but I have never been able to track down the reference either.

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