Effie the Woolly Mammoth: University of Alaska Museum of the North
In August of 1948, an unusual fossil was washed out of the much at a gold mine located on Fairbanks Creek, north of Fairbanks. It was the head, foreleg, and shoulder of a very young Pleistocene mammoth. It was nicknamed “Effie,” after the Fairbanks Exploration (FE) branch of the United States Smelting, Refining, & Mining Company. A carbon 14 date from Effie’s skin indicated that it died approximately 21,300 years ago.
The preservation of the skin, muscles, and connective tissue makes Effie the best preserved mammoth to be found in North America. These remains have furnished comparative material for the identification of blood stains on Alaskan stone artifacts that were used to kill and/or butcher mammoths. In addition, DNA analysis from Effie’s tissue will help us understand to what extent the breeding lines of mammoth have diverged from a common ancestor.
Effie was in several parts when discovered. The mummy was the carefully embalmed, and the tears stitched together by University of Alaska scientists. The tearing was probably due to scavenging before burial. Effie would have been eaten almost entirely because the bones of such a young animal are soft and poorly ossified. The tip of the trunk was missing because it was eaten off. It is difficult to estimate the season of death because Effie lacked teeth, hair, and internal organs. Burial would have taken place during spring when snow was melting or possibly after a rare summer thunderstorm. It would have taken very little silt to bury this mammoth because it was so small. The skull and the rest of the skin were probably dragged away and not covered by silt, or the miners did not recognize the remains as they were washed away.
Age and the Circumstances of Death
Effie’s size is the only clue to its age. An elephant in its first year averages about a meter at the shoulder, and based on this, Effie probably died during its first year. Elephants lose about half of their young during the first couple of years, and this probably held true for mammoths as well. Few elephant calves are actually killed by predators as the mother is too good a protector. However, since the female has to nurse the calf through its first winter, her condition is critical. Any female who produces less than optimum amounts and quality of milk is likely to lose her young. In this case, the young would be more likely to catch some disease, have an accident, or simply starve.
Effie was probably not killed by a predator, but died from malnutrition or an accident. The carcass would have been protected by the mother for a few days, then abandoned. Scavengers such as wolves, wolverines, or lions would have moved in, tearing through the tough skin to get to the other, more choice parts. Effie’s death was not unusual. It was a natural and common part of the mammoth’s life history. The death of such a young animal had little impact on the mammoth population as the mother soon came into estrous and had another young a couple of years later. The gestation period of elephants is about 22 months, a trait fairly constant in proboscideans. Mammoths probably had similar gestation periods.