With the recent opening of the Landscapes of Canada Gardens on the museum’s property, visitors to the Canadian Museum of Nature now have the opportunity to explore some of the diverse plant communities that characterize the Great White North. One component of the gardens, though, is seemingly incongruous. While strolling along the pathway, you will eventually encounter three woolly mammoths!

Three woolly mammoth sculptures in a park.
First appearing on the museum’s grounds in 1987, these woolly mammoth sculptures have an interesting history that will be the subject of my next blog. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

There are no mammoths wandering the Canadian tundra or woodlands today, so it’s understandable to question what these animals are doing in the Landscapes of Canada Gardens. The life-size replicas surround a very special component—in their midst is a narrow bed of plants that represent species that once grew on the mammoth steppe, an Ice Age ecosystem with features of both steppe and tundra environments. One of the best fossil records documenting this prehistoric biome is found in the Yukon, which 25,000 years ago was a very different place.

The shadow of a woolly mammoth beside a bed of plants.
The planting bed of the mammoth steppe section in the morning sun. It is partially covered by the shadow of the ever-vigilant male woolly mammoth. Only recently planted, the grasses and flowers are not yet fully established. The bed will be expanded in the future to occupy the space in the background now overgrown with ornamental wheat and local weeds. Image : Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

While most of Canada was under massive ice sheets, parts of Ice Age Yukon remained open terrain comprising a mosaic of grasslands, rocky tundra, and arid scrublands.

A map shows vegetation zones during the the Ice Age.
This world map displays the primary vegetation zones during the Last Glacial Maximum (25,000-18,000 years ago). Ice sheets are in grey, with surrounding areas representing wetter (light pink) and drier (dark blue) regions of the mammoth steppe. It stretched from Europe and Asia into North America via the Bering Land Bridge—representing the largest terrestrial biome during the Ice Age. © Credit : Nicolas Ray and Jonathan M. Adams (CC BY 3.0).

Colder, drier, and with deeper soils, the moss carpets that cover much of the present-day tundra were largely absent as were sizeable trees, but numerous graminoids (grasses and sedges) and low-growing forbs (non-graminoid herbaceous plants) were present. Patches of woody shrubs and isolated stands of stunted trees would also have dotted the landscape.

An artist’s illustration shows animals in a mammoth steppe landscape.
Artist’s reconstruction of the mammoth steppe in northern Spain. The landscape and animals would have been similar in North America, minus the woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis), whose range was restricted to Eurasia. The massive glaciers of the Ice Age altered patterns of wind flow and atmospheric moisture levels to create a zone that was drier than modern tundra and colder during the winter than the steppes of central Asia. Yukon during the Ice Age experienced frigid winter temperatures but received less snowfall. In contrast, the summer seasons were often warmer, saw less cloud cover, and had greater depths of thaw above the permafrost. This resulted in a longer growing season and a deeper sediment base in which plants could set their roots. © Mauricio Anton (CC BY 2.5).

The widespread grasses and nutritious forbs supported herds of large herbivorous mammals such as the Yukon horse (Equus ferus lambei), steppe bison (Bison priscus), and of course the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius).

View of an Iceland Poppy in the garden.
More than 250 species of plants have been identified in the fossil record for the mammoth steppe, including this beautiful Iceland poppy (Papaver nudicaule) in our mammoth steppe garden. Forbs such as this had a significant presence on the landscape. They were more nutritious than grass, allowing a diversity of large herbivorous mammals to thrive during the Ice Age. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

These hairy elephants in particular played an important role as a keystone species, which is an animal whose behaviour strongly affects the structure of an ecosystem. The mammoth’s foraging activity and movements across the landscape likely contributed to the conditions necessary for maintaining the mammoth steppe as a distinct environment. The woolly mammoth can therefore truly be regarded as a gardener of sorts!

We can thus complete my alteration of a popular English nursery rhyme (“Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary”) and answer the question posed in the title of this post:

Tufted hairgrass.
Woolly mammoths once grazed on graminoid plants such as this tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa), whose remains have been recovered from the digestive tract of frozen woolly mammoth mummies. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Mammoth, mammoth, tusked and hairy,
How does your garden grow?
With forbs for lunch, no moss to munch,
And tufted grass my trunk shall mow.

As a natural history museum, we take the long view on things, with our perspectives gazing out from the present to both the past and the future. The mammoth steppe display highlights the fact that ecosystems are dynamic and constantly evolving. Keeping this in mind will help visitors to the Landscapes of Canada Gardens better appreciate our modern countryside in learning about its history and in wondering about its future.

Photo of a modern steppe environment in Russia.
Although the mammoth steppe disappeared with the continental ice sheets as the Ice Age came to a close, some environments today bear a close resemblance, such as this high-altitude steppe of the Tuva Republic, Russian Federation. © Butorin (CC BY 4.0)