The Largest Elephant that Ever Existed

H.sapiens, Songhua River Mammoth, African Elephant

The largest elephant that ever lived was huge, taller than your two-story Mayfair flat and almost as tall as the average telephone pole. Evolved from smaller Siberian mammoths, the Songhua River Mammoth roamed Northern China and Inner Mongolia during the Middle Pleistocene about 280,000 years ago. It survived into the Late Pleistocene but died out well before the end of the last ice age.

Songhua River Mammoth Skull

Fossils of the Songhua River Mammoth are rare. The largest mammals in any group are never common because several factors set limits on population numbers. An elephant of this size would have a long maturation period, and breed slowly with only one or two offspring born at one time. Daily caloric requirements – pounds of grass and other fodder – would be huge and require that these huge beasts eat continuously 24/7. Brunch with second and third portions at no extra charge would have been a requirement every day of the week.

Songhua River Mammoth Skeleton

There is an original Songhua River Mammoth in the Inner Mongolia Museum, which was constructed from the remains of two individuals. A skeleton of a large male in a Japanese museum is 17 ft tall and 30 ft long from tip of the trunk to tip of the tail. Estimated weight is 10 tonnes and the metrics of this huge male represent maximum size for the Songhua River Mammoth. In China, there is a Songhua Mammoth skeleton on exhibit at the Daging Museum that is a 13-14 year old male from the late Upper Pleistocene with a body length of 6m and height of 3.5m. It was found in 2003 and is nearly identical to that in a museum in Shenzhen.


Image: shizhao

Remains of more than 150 Songhua River Mammoths have been found in China, but most of the fossil evidence is bits and pieces, fragments of teeth, limb bones and the skull.

There were scattered human groups in Northern China at the time of the Songhua River Mammoth. Archeologists in Africa working on early human ancestor sites have established that the biggest elephants in Africa were occasionally hunted, and we can assume that was also true for Pleistocene hunters in China and Mongolia. The effort and danger were worth it – one successful elephant hunt and the clan had steak for several weeks.


But a word or two of caution. Elephants are very smart. Centuries ago in Asia, they were trained for hard labor in the forest and at construction projects, as battle tanks in war and prestigious transport for royalty. If pursued and injured by hunters, elephants will often turn around and look for their human enemy, then charge and try to kill the hunter who attacked them. Just imagine getting chased by a Songhua River Mammoth! … The huge head lowers, and the mammoth charges. You can’t outrun it and soon the trunk wraps around your waist. As you rise into the air, the last thing you hear in elephant speak is “Got you, little man, this is payback time!” and than all goes black… On second thought, forget about the mammoth hunt. It might be best for both mammoths and people that we have lentil soup for dinner.

*Special thanks to Institute of Geology, Chinese Academy of Geological Science for the use of their images.

Sources 1, 2, 3