Rio History: Mammoth Island

Special to the PRESS

Most people who hear that mammoth bones and teeth are occasionally found on Padre Island ask the question, “Is it true mammoth elephants once lived on Padre Island?”

Yes! The Columbian Mammoth did indeed roam this area, but that was before Padre Island (estimated to be only around 3,500 – 5,000 years old) was ever formed. Ancestors of the mammoth crossed over the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia, to North America over a million years ago.  After thousands of years of adaptation to the new environment, the Columbian Mammoth, largest of all the mammoths, eventually evolved. It roamed from Alaska, all the way to Central America.

Around 15,000 BC, before the extinction of the mammoths occurred, estimated to be approximately 12,000 years ago, the waters of the world’s seas were about 350 to 450 feet lower than present day levels. Rivers drained the surrounding landmass, carrying sediments 50 or more miles eastward of our present-day shoreline. Consequently, land covered what we know today as Padre Island. This was the Wisconsin period.

Ice Age mammals including, mammoths, native horses, camels, long horned bison, giant armadillos and equally giant sloths roamed the vast coastal prairie that stretched from Baffin Bay southward to the mouth of the Rio Grande. There were also wolves, bears and saber tooth tigers, all of which were not above dining on an occasional human. But humans were not defenseless and the hunter could easily become the hunted. Early man was very proficient in the use of the atlatl (a spear-throwing device). A stick equipped with a thong or socket was used to steady the butt of the spear during the throwing motion. The stone tipped projectile was four to seven feet long. It could be thrown with a high degree of accuracy. With this weapon, mammoth hunters frequently preyed upon old, injured, or very young animals using the “surround technique.” This involved trapping an animal in a bog or swampy area, then surrounding it and spearing it to death. Only one or two animals were killed at a time and the process could be extremely dangerous considering the Columbian mammoth’s size.  Standing 12 to 14 feet tall at the shoulder, the mammoth weighed some 10 to 12 tons. It reached its colossal size by eating 700 pounds of vegetation, mostly grasses, each day.

Like the modern day elephant, mammoths had only four teeth for chewing at any one time; two upper and two lower.  As each tooth wore down and broke apart, a new tooth would replace it.  In all, the mammoth had six separate sets of teeth over its life span.  In addition, two incisor teeth grew into long curved tusks. The longest Columbian Mammoth tusk on record, was found right here in Texas.  It measures 16 feet long and weighs 208 pounds. It is currently housed in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

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