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The extinct woolly mammoth was 'as smart as African elephant', says pioneering new brain analysis

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12 November 2015


'The brain of Yuka was very well preserved, and we could compare it to the brain of an African elephant.' Picture: Mikhail Protopopov

Elephants are famed for their intelligence, and now it seems likely that the long-gone woolly mammoths were just as clever. Scientists from Russia and South Africa combined to undertake the first-ever comparison between the brains of the two creatures, using remains of adolescent Yuka, found five years ago close to the Laptev Sea in the Ust-Yansky district of the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia. 

Albert Protopopov, head of the mammoth fauna studies department of the Yakutian Academy of Sciences, said: 'The brain of Yuka was very well preserved, and we could compare it to the brain of an African elephant. The world never made such a comparison before. South Africa offered us three African elephant brains for comparison. We ran a tomography scan on our test subjects and realised that they were identical.'

The scientists go further and deduce that the similarities of the brain are so striking that the woolly mammoths behaviour was also akin to elephants, according to a paper published in The Journal of Comparative Neurology.

'Now we can suppose that those animals were social and ruled by matriarchy,' he said of the woolly mammoth which died out completely around 4,000 years ago.


Mammoth Yuka

Adolescent Yuka was found five years ago close to the Laptev Sea in the Ust-Yansky district of the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia. Pictures: Mikhail Protopopov

Elephants are known for cognitively based behaviour, requiring conscious thought, for example in use of tools, reaction to disability, displaying grief, compassion, learning, mimicry, co-operation, memory and communication. Now, as a working assumption, the experts believe woolly mammoths had similar capabilities. 

'The Yuka mammoth specimen evinced the typical shape and size of the brain observed in modern elephants,' he said. In fact, the volume of the Yuka brain was 54.83% of the endocranial cavity, but this shrinkage was entirely 'the result of dehydration during the long-term mummification of the tissue in the permafrost', he said. Allowance was also made for the fact that Yuka was a maximum nine years old, and so still growing. 

'In overall appearance, the gross morphology of the Yuka mammoth brain was very similar to that of the extant African elephant brain,' he said. 'It appears that the woolly mammoths and extant elephants had similar overall brain masses.'

Dr Protopopov said: 'We conducted a morphological comparison of Yuka's brain with the brain of the African elephant of the same age. Our colleague Anastasia Kharlamova from the Institute of Human Morphology, Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow), travelled to South Africa, and conducted  a dissection. Such a comparison was carried out for the first time in the world as only Yuka has such a well-preserved brain.'

Comparison of brains

Brain of the African elephant (top) and the mummified brain of the Yuka woolly mammoth specimen (bottom).  Picture: The Journal of Comparative Neurology

Like elephants, an 'outstanding feature' of the mammoth brain is the size of the cerebellum, states the scientific publication. 'Control of the woolly mammoth trunk likely relied on the same combination of size, neuronal number, and neuronal complexity observed in the cerebellum of African elephants. Thus, from a purely qualitative standpoint, and if the specimens were in a similar state of preservation, it would not be a particularly easy task to identify which specimen was a woolly mammoth and which was an extant elephant.'

The authors state: 'Although we strongly state the case for the understanding of woolly mammoth behaviour through the neuroethological study of extant elephants, we must do this with caution. There is no doubt that the woolly mammoth brain, to the extent we could examine the current specimen, is very similar to the extant elephant brain in most ways; however, the preservation state of the tissue prevented us from examining the specimen in more detail.

'Therefore, the case for the transference of neuroethological findings in extant elephants to woolly mammoths must be done with care. It is highly unlikely that woolly mammoths were just hairy elephants, and even extant animals with very similarly organised brains, such as lions and tigers, show substantial differences in such characteristics as social behaviours. Even so, the neuroethological study of extant elephants is likely to provide the most reliable predictions of woolly mammoth behaviour. 

Yuka's brain

Yuka's brain

Yuka's brain

There is no doubt that the woolly mammoth brain, to the extent we could examine the current specimen, is very similar to the extant elephant brain in most ways. Pictures: Mikhail Protopopov

'Nevertheless, in the face of these problems and cautionary notes, the current study has provided a unique and revealing glimpse into a woolly mammoth brain that was preserved for around 38,000 years, as well as a potential path for increasing our understanding of the life history and behaviour of this animal.

The elephant brain has a total of 257 billion neurons. It is similar to that of humans in terms of structure and complexity. The elephant cortex has  as many neurons as a human brain, taken as a sign of convergent evolution.

The  Russian team involved  in the research comprised Albert Protopopov, Yakutian Academy of Sciences (Yakutsk), Anastasia Kharlamova and Sergei Saveliev from Institute of Human Morphology, Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow). The partners of Russian scientists in Africa were the researchers from the School of Anatomical Sciences, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg) - Busisiwe C. Maseko, Adhil Bhagwandin, and Paul R. Manger. 

Comments (6)

The fact that we are bringing back this creature is amazing. Some say as early as 2024. To think that in our lifetime we may get to see this creature or creatures live again is incredible. They will roam the tundra once more and take up where their ancestors left off.

At the same time are we playing God? Was the mammoth meant to go extinct? Or was it as always in these cases the hand of man? In which case it makes sense to put right what we have done wrong. That is restoring these animals to life.
Nick Bishop, United Kingdom
30/03/2023 17:21
That’s even sadder that they went extinct. We don’t know anything about the mammoth’s behavior of course, but the discovery that their brains were just as complex as the African elephant’s brain is a telltale that sign that the mammoth was highly intelligent and self-aware species. I don’t think mammoths had a concept of extinction, but I bet that they’d get lonely and isolated the elephants do. I’m sure the last mammoth must’ve been confused and upset that it couldn’t find other mammoths to mate or otherwise socialize with. It must’ve been a distressing, isolating life.
Bees, United States of America
05/02/2023 22:22
Wonderful discovery. I don't think that any symptoms about mammoth behavior can be made simply by comparison of brain structure. If one considered the variety of culture within other intelligent species their subspecies, we find that culture and behavior vary drastically depending on a myriad of factors. Even Ravens display varied behavioral strategies. When speaking of patriarchy vs matriarchy, consider the chimpanzee and banobo behavioral differences. Their brains are remarkably similar yet one is largely patriarchal and one matriarchal. Within humans there are examples of wildly different family structures. I urge you to take a more cautious approach when drawing conclusions.
Jeffrey Wiesner, Oakland/California
01/11/2020 16:05
After seeing the way the guy is operating the grinder, I think he might be the next one that goes extinct.
Mikhail, Phoenix , Arizona USA
22/11/2015 04:42
Fascinating research!

A few safety notes, based on my observations of the accompanying photos: The disk-grinder used to cut open the mammoth's skull is missing its protective metal guard, which is designed to reduce the risk of injury to the operator, as the cutting disk can unexpectedly shatter, jam or kick-back during use. Disk-grinders also come with a modular handle which can be screwed into the left or right side of the unit at 90 degrees for increased handling stability, but is not used in these photos. In the one where the grinder is in use, the operator's hand appears dangerously close to the 11,000 RPM cutting disk; just a slip away from serious injury. He or she should be wearing leather work gloves when using the tool, not just thin disposable vinyl gloves. The operator (and onlookers) should also be wearing proper safety glasses while the disk grinder is in use, yet none are visible in any of the photos. As the saying goes: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Ian, BC / Canada
14/11/2015 22:04
They must have been very intelligent creatures. :)
Sirkku Linnea, Finland
13/11/2015 19:23

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