Some of the most iconic Ice Age giants belong to the elephant family, Elephantidae. This includes mammoths, a group of elephantids that became extinct about 4,000 years ago. Two species of mammoth were found in Oxfordshire during the Pleistocene – the steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii) and woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius). Local fossil sites also show us that straight-tusked elephants (Palaeolodoxon antiquus) roamed Britain during the Pleistocene.
Woolly mammoths first entered Britain around 190,000-150,000 years ago. It is believed that they existed alongside steppe mammoths for a short time before replacing them to become the only mammoth species present in Britain and Europe.
Woolly mammoths could be found in cool/cold grassland environments during glacial periods. They are especially well-known from the middle part of the last Ice Age (35,000 to 60,000 years ago). Hundreds of woolly mammoth fossils of this age have been found at sites in Oxfordshire, such as Sutton Courtenay, Yarnton, and Hardwick.
Over 900 fossils of steppe mammoth were discovered during excavations near the village of Stanton Harcourt in the 1990s, including >140 tusks, 188 teeth, and nearly 500 bones. This is one of the largest collections of steppe mammoth fossils known in northwest Europe!
Straight-tusked elephants have been present in temperate forests during every warm 'interglacial' period in Britain for the past 500,000 years. Adult males could reach 4m at the shoulder and weighed around 13 tonnes! In Oxfordshire, straight-tusked elephants are known from sites including Long Hanborough (ca. 500,000 years ago), Wolvercote (ca. 300,000 years ago), Stanton Harcourt (ca. 200,000 years ago), and Sutton Courtenay (ca. 125,000 years ago).
The fossils that were found at Stanton Harcourt show that the steppe mammoths that lived there were curiously small. Whereas early steppe mammoths reached around 4 metres at the shoulder, the Stanton Harcourt fossils belonged to mammoths that were only 2.2-2.9 metres tall. This would have made them shorter than woolly mammoths, which ranged from 2.75-3.4 metres at the shoulder.
One possible explanation for the small body size of the Stanton Harcourt mammoths is a lack of food resources. Populations of other large herbivores – like rhinos, bisons, and horses – would have fed on similar plants to the mammoths, and reduced the availability of food for them. In addition, the Stanton Harcourt mammoths lived during a period of relatively cool climate just before a major Ice Age. Plant species that produce rich, high-quality food resources may have struggled to survive in this climate, leaving fewer, lower quality plant foods for the large herbivores to survive on.
Adapted from Mammoths and Neanderthals in the Thames Valley by K. Scott and C. Buckingham (2021)