Ice, Ice, Baby - but not only

The Northwest had already been through a lot of movin' and shakin' before my time—rupturing supercontinents, bursting volcanoes, a shifting shoreline. Things were lively, to say the least. (For a play-by-play, check out the Burke's Northwest Origins Site.)

My heyday—the Pleistocene epoch, about 2 million to 10,000 years ago—hardly put all this activity on ice. In fact, ice was one of the next major forces to shape what's now Washington. In what you call western Washington, glaciers—sneaky things!—crept down as far as today's Olympia and then retreated and then crept back and... you get the idea.

Glaciers also did their share of geologic meddling over on the eastern side of our state. Out there and into Idaho and Montana, glaciers built huge ice dams. When the dams just couldn't take it anymore, they broke, shooting tons and tons of water across the land in gigantic floods. Fortunately, I was north of the Columbia and missed the walls of water...

All that creep–and–retreat left its mark, from giant rocks in flat plains to the deep trenches of Puget Sound.

© Jina Lee / Wikimedia Commons

Ice age Northwest

Short of a time machine (if you find one, look me up!), you can still see a lot of ice age evidence today.

Take a virtual tour

Hop in your car or put on your shoes

Seattle's glacier depth during last ice age.

More about mammoths

So back to me...

Although I'm a Northwest native, my ancestors—ancient relatives of today's elephants—first came from Africa and then Asia, traipsing over the land bridge that existed for a while between what you call Russia and Alaska.

Once we got here, we took trips all over to explore our new homeland, evolving into several different species as we went. MY species, the Columbian mammoth, showed up later during the Ice Age.

But let's not split too many hairs... Mammoths (species of Mammuthus), are one big, happy family, and as families go, we're pretty cool. Here are some reasons why:

The ending of an era

Alas, despite our coolness, mammoths didn't last forever. About 11,000 years ago, we either went the way of fossils—or the way of dust.

There's still some debate about why we went extinct. Some of you say climate change, others think your own species hunted us to extinction, and it might have been a combination of both. Wish I could tell you how it all went down, but as I mentioned, my memory is a bit foggy after about 20,000 years. Guess that whole "elephants never forget" thing didn't evolve from me...

Mammoth Factoids

    Columbian vs. Woolly: What's the difference?
  • For starters, my kind, Columbian mammoths, were bigger than woolly mammoths and, as you might expect, we had less hair. Also, Columbian mammoths actually hung out in Washington. So far, no woollys have been found around these parts.
  • State representative.
  • In 1998, I (or rather, my kind) became the official Washington State fossil. What an honor! But I'm not just a big deal here. Did you know mammoths actually played a role in the other Washington's early history?
  • The company I kept then.
  • Sure, the social scene has changed, but it wasn't totally dead in my day. Also chilling in my neighborhood were mastodons, giant ground sloths, big cats, camels, bison, and horses.
  • The company I keep now.
  • At the Burke, I'm hanging out with other fossils—over 3 million!—and plenty of paleontologists. Paleontologists study past life forms (animals, plants, etc.) using the fossil record. Just as woolly mammoths aren't to be confused with Columbian mammoths, paleontologists aren't to be confused with archaeologists (the Burke has those, too). Archaeologists study people and their cultures through things you all leave behind (tools, shoes, what you ate for lunch, etc.). So, archaeologists are for you, paleontologists are for me. Got it? Good.