The Rise and Fall of the Mammoths

What You Need

The Rise and Fall of the Mammoths


To develop an understanding of the evolution of species in the context of the woolly mammoth.


It is important to distinguish between evolution, the historical changes in life forms that are well substantiated and generally accepted as fact by scientists, and natural selection, the proposed mechanism for these changes. Students should first be familiar with the evidence of evolution so that they will have an informed basis for judging different explanations (and forming their own ideas). This lesson will help students to examine the evidence for evolution using the woolly mammoth and related species, of which there happens to be a sizable fossil record. By exposing students to the diversity and apparent relatedness of various mammoth species, this lesson will help to prepare students to understand natural selection as a proposed mechanism for evolution.

During the course of this lesson (and all other studies of evolution), it is important to help students remain focused on the idea that organisms in nature typically produce more offspring than can survive and reproduce given the constraints of food, space, and other resources in the environment. These offspring often differ from one another in ways that are heritable—that is, they can pass on the differences genetically to their own offspring. If competing offspring have traits that are advantageous in a given environment, they will survive and pass on those traits. As differences continue to accumulate over generations, populations of organisms diverge from their ancestors. This is important because students may hold the common misconception that adaptations result from the environment rather than from individuals whose traits are suited to a particular environment, making them the ones most likely to thrive and reproduce in that environment. Populations of organisms with characteristics enabling them to occupy ecological niches not occupied by similar organisms have a greater chance of surviving.


To begin this lesson, students should use their What Happened to the Mammoths? student esheet to read the brief introductory article about the Woolly Mammoth. Allow students about ten minutes to read this article and then discuss these questions:

  • When did the woolly mammoths live?
    (They lived during the Late Pleistocene Epoch.)
  • How big were the woolly mammoths?
    (They were about 3 meters high at the shoulders;  or 10 feet.)
  • When did they die out?
    (They died out about 11,000 year ago.)
  • Where were they found?
    (They were found in Eurasia and North America.)
  • How do we know about them?
    (We know about them through the fossil record.)
  • Are there any animals today that are like the woolly mammoth?
    (Elephants are like the woolly mammoth.)


Using the esheet as a guide, students should explore websites to learn about the evolution and extinction of various mammoth species.

Begin the lesson by having students look at the Mammoth Migration Map. This resource introduces students to the four known species of mammoths and also provides an evolutionary timeline that places the woolly mammoth extinction into perspective. Students should fill out the first part of the What Happened to the Mammoths? student sheet based on this resource. It is best that students work in pairs or small groups to complete this portion of the lesson; each student, however, should complete the student sheet.

Then have students explore pages from the Mammoth Discovery website as instructed on the student esheet. Students should record interesting information that they discover about the evolution and extinction of the mammoths on the Evolution and Extinction of the Mammoths student sheet. After students have filled out the student sheet, conduct a class discussion in which students share their information with the rest of the class.


To summarize and further develop the ideas in this lesson, conclude by referring students to The Mammals' Family Tree. Using the student esheet, students can explore the resource. They can answer questions about the family tree on the Mammoths and Other Mammals student sheet.


This lesson is part of a series on woolly mammoth evolution and extinction. The other lesson in the series is Mammoth Extinction (9-12).

What Killed the Mammoths?, on the American Museum of Natural History website, is another introduction to mammoths that will provide additional information for students and teachers.

The Mammoth Site, from The Mammoth Site Museum in Hot Springs, South Dakota, contains pictures, educational activities, research data, and more.

 Mammoth Site Geology explains how mammoth fossils were preserved .

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards