The discovery of the remains of a miniature mammoth on the Mediterranean island of Crete was announced last week. These mammoths stood about waist-high and the reconstruction of the animal in the journal Nature must rank as one of the cutest scientific reports in a long time.

If Crete seems impossibly remote, the map below serves as a reminder that mammoths and mastodons (full-sized: three meters high) roamed North America until very recently. For three million years, this species wandered through forests in small bands, tearing up the vegetation. The “damage” left by the much maligned white-tailed deer is nothing compared to what these giant herbivores wrought. About ten thousand years ago the mammoths and mastodons disappeared. A combination of climate change (the last of many ice ages was ending) and predation (humans had just shown up on the continent) probably did them in.

So, we have to turn to our imaginations to experience what our forests were like for most of their evolution. We sit on a mountain ridge and watch a group of huge elephant-like beings work their way across the valley, twisting at tree trunks with their five meter tusks, ripping and nibbling at branches with their mouths. Their calls? Stirring, no doubt.

Each dot is the location of a fossil. Image from FaunMap: This map is for the American mastodon. The fossils from Crete were mammoths, a different genus.

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