7 Extinct Ice Age Animals 

Written by Becky Mathews
Updated: October 8, 2022
Image Credit PradaBrown/Shutterstock.com
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From saber-tooth tigers to woolly mammoths and dire wolves, extinct Ice Age animals are fascinating creatures that capture our imaginations. It’s hard to imagine humans once lived alongside such huge and terrifying animals! However, 12,000 years ago over 35 megafauna species became extinct at the same time and scientists aren’t sure why.

Why Did Ice Age Megafauna Go Extinct?

Scientists hotly debate the reasons why so many Ice Age animals became extinct in the same time period. An article in the Biological Review journal discusses ideas put forward ranging from climate change, human hunting, asteroid strikes, and viruses.

Today’s consensus is that climate change and human hunting were the most likely reasons for causing the extinction of so many Ice Age animals. Warmer climates led to environmental changes. It meant there were more forests and therefore less available food for megafauna animals. Human hunting exacerbated this problem.

Here are 7 extinct ice age animals that were around at the same time as humans.

1.     Dire Wolf (Aenocyon dirus)

Dire wolf close-up
Dire wolves hunted horses, deer, bison, and mastodons in packs.

Daniel Eskridge/Shutterstock.com

Game of Thrones’s dire wolves were based on real life dire wolves that went extinct around 9,500 years ago in the late Pleistocene and early Holocene eras. The dire wolf was a huge predator at least 25% bigger than the size of our current gray wolf.

There were two subspecies of dire wolf, Aenocyon dirus guildayi and Aenocyon dirus dirus, but these too died out. Their fossilised remains are found in North America, South America, and East Asia. A very rich dire wolf graveyard (along with many other species) is the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.  

In Latin the word ‘dirus’ means ‘ominous’ and that’s where the name ‘dire wolf’ comes from. It’s a fitting name, because this massive wolf weighed 200 pounds and was 69 inches at its shoulder. Dire wolves preyed on deer, bison, horses, mastodons, and ground sloths in packs much like today’s gray wolves.  

Dire wolf skeletons have provided scientists with abundant DNA, so much so that it’s possible geneticists might be able to bring them back from extinction.

2.     Mastodons (Mammut americanum)

High resolution mastodon rendering
Mastodon’s teeth were cone-like and blunt, meant for browsing.

CC BY 3.0 / Dantheman9758 – License

Mastodons were a type of red-haired shaggy elephant belonging to the now extinct mammut genus that died out 10,000 – 11,000 years ago.

They were shorter than today’s elephants with smaller ears to prevent frostbite, but their tusks were similar. They grew upwards and parallel to one another. Males had a second set of lower tusks. 

Mastodons were herbivores that lived in herds and browsed greenery. They were fairly common and spread across the world, so mastodon fossils are frequently discovered on different continents.

Experts theorise that climate change led to diminishing numbers as food was less readily available. They were prey to some of the large carnivores of the ice age and humans hunted them too.

Over time, mastodon numbers fell until they finally went extinct.

3.     Woolly Mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius)

Woolly mammoth exhibit
Ice Age woolly mammoths only died out 4,000 years ago.

HTO – Public Domain

Mammoths were similar to mastodons and part of the same mammut genus. Their closest living relative is the Asian elephant. Out of the extinct Ice Age animals, woolly mammoths are the most recent extinction. An isolated population held out on Wrangel Island north of Siberia only 4,000 years ago.

Mammoths had long, curved tusks and stood up to 11 feet tall. Adult males weighed 12,000 pounds! That’s the same as an African elephant. Researchers think they were covered in black, blonde, or dark brown fur to keep warm.

Our enduring images of woolly mammoths include their enormous tusks, and these have given interesting insights into their diet. Mammoth tusks have growth rings like trees. In winter, these growth rings were much smaller which may show they struggled to find food in the very cold months.

Some scientists suggest the woolly mammoth diet contributed to Ice Age climate change. As it became warmer, their numbers fell and they ate fewer birch trees. Birch trees naturally absorb sunlight and warm up their local environment – which meant fewer mammoths, more birch trees, and even warmer conditions.

Because mammoths overlapped with humans by 1,000 years, they were hunted for meat and clothing. Experts think climate change coupled with hunting put an end to these majestic creatures.

4.     Cave Lion (Panthera spelaea)

Largest lion - Woolly rhinoceros and European cave lion
Cave lions weighed as much as 800 pounds.

Arthur Balitskii/Shutterstock.com

The largest felines to roam the planet were cave lions. They were huge, topping scales at 800 pounds, standing 1.2 metres tall, and 2.1 metres in length. That’s an extra 10% on our modern-day lions. Their faces were a little different too. Cave lions had a pointier, longer muzzle and no mane according to ancient cave art.

They belonged to the extinct Panthera genus and died out 13,500 years ago. Scientists suggest their extinction was due to a lack of suitable prey animals, such as antelope, as the climate changed from open grassland to forest. No doubt human hunting played a part too. Meat, skins, and erasure of these food competitors were all reasons why cave lions were hunted.

5.     American Cheetah (Miracinonyx trumani)

American Cheetah
Miracinoyx trumani, extinct north American feline related to cheetahs and pumas, went extinct 12,000 years ago.

Sheatherius / CC BY-SA 4.0 – License

American cheetahs became extinct along with other megafauna about 12,000 years ago.

In life they must have been beautiful cats. Experts think they were similar to snow leopards with swift speed adaptions such as a short muzzle and the slim proportions found on our cheetahs.

They preyed on mountain goats and sheep on cliffs and rocks, most likely stalking them until they were close enough to use a turn of speed to bring their prey down.

A debated suggestion is that American cheetahs are responsible for the astonishing speed of pronghorn antelopes. They can sprint at 65 mph (104 kilometers) which is much faster than their current predators. Scientists think speedy American cheetahs preyed on pronghorn antelope in the past and that’s why they can run so fast.

The American cheetah lived across North America before it became extinct most likely due to a combination of climate change, fewer prey animals, and human hunting.

6.     Irish Elk (Megaloceros)

Largest Deer Ever - Irish Elk
The Irish Elk’s antlers were 3.65 meters across!

Daniel Eskridge/Shutterstock.com

This massive deer is also called the giant deer for good reason! It’s the largest deer that’s ever inhabited Earth.

Irish elk lived in Ireland and across Eurasia to Siberia. Many remains are found in Irish peat bogs, which is why they are called Irish Elk. However, DNA studies on these remains suggest their closest living relatives are fallow deer, not elk.

Irish elk were 2.1 meters tall (6 feet 11 inches), and their antlers were even larger! They measured 3.65 meters (12 feet) across and weighed 40 kilograms (88 pounds). They were the largest, heaviest deer to ever exist.

Fossils indicate they lived from 400,000 years ago to 8,000 years ago, eventually becoming extinct during the Ice Ages. Years ago, scientists thought the magnificent antlers of Irish elk contributed to their extinction. They thought the antlers were so large that when fleeing from humans they became entangled in shrubs and trees. Modern theories believe climate change and hunting were to blame for a slow extinction. 

If you want to see an Irish Elk, there’s a skeleton in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, and there are several antlers in Warwick Castle, England. A digitized Irish Elk is ridden by King Thranduil in the film, The Hobbit – The Battle of the Five Armies.

7.     Saber-Tooth Tiger (Smilodon)

Saber-toothed tiger
Saber-tooth tigers were the top apex predators of their environment.

Daniel Eskridge/Shutterstock.com

Incredible saber-tooth tigers were a species of big cat from the genus Smilodon. They were named after the elongated teeth in their upper jaw that measured 7 inches in length! This means they had a mouth gape of up to 120 degrees. In comparison, our modern-day big cats can open their jaws to around 60 degrees.  

Saber-tooth tigers lived in North and South America and 10,000 years ago they became extinct. Despite their name, they are not related to our modern-day tigers. Instead, experts think all three species (smilodon fatalis, smilodon gracilis, and smilidon populator) were similar in color to African lions and were most closely related to the clouded leopard.

Saber-tooth tigers were formidable predators and most likely pack hunters that hunted bison, deer, and other small mammals by ambush before bringing them down with their muscular limbs and strong claws. They were apex predators in their environment, so there’s debate over why they went extinct in the last Ice Age.

The probable conclusion is the same as other megafauna of the Ice Age: climate change and hunting by humans. However, we don’t know for sure!

This list of 7 extinct ice age animals gives a flavor of what was around 12,000 years ago competing with our early ancestors, but at least another 27 megafauna species were also lost in this changeable period of time.

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About the Author

I’ve been a professional writer since 2014 with special interests in the environment, particularly endangered animal and plant species. I graduated from the University of Reading, UK with an MA in history and hold University of Oxford qualifications in archaeology. Outside of work, I rehabilitate wildlife, work in my allotment garden, and play the piano badly.

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