After the dinosaurs, woolly mammoths are some of the most well-known of prehistoric creatures. Unlike the dinosaurs, which have become associated in the popular imagination with the steaming jungles and volcanoes of Prehistoria, the mammoths are instead almost always thought of as inhabiting cold, snowbound lands. This is largely because the most well-known member of their genus, the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), lived alongside early mankind in northern Eurasia and North America during the last major Ice Age. As mammoths were the most physically impressive and memorable specimens of the Ice Age's megafauna, popular culture eventually began to use them as a symbol of the Ice Age itself, and through that of the cold and rigors associated with it and the (by modern perceptions) uncivilized and barbarous state in which Ice Age humans lived.
As such, when these shaggy elephant-like animals appear in modern fiction, they almost always do so in conditions of intense cold: outside of settings that try to hew to more realistic interpretations of these animals, you will not find mammoths living in warm or temperate lands — often, visual art will favor depicting them roaming in deep white snow, with no bare ground or plants in sight — nor near civilization. Instead, the appearance of shaggy pachyderms striding through knee-deep snowdrifts is often used as a shorthand of sorts to communicate that a land or period is terribly, terribly cold, and often not suited for civilization. The most common way this plays out is to symbolize the Ice Age itself — a mammoth sighting is almost required for time travelers visiting that period, and they'll be a common sight for Ice Age cavemen as well. Likewise, they are sometimes used to show that a new ice age has gripped the world, with herds of mammoths appearing alongside the ice and snow to show the way the world has changed.
A fantasy-specific way this trope plays out is to place mammoths in the Grim Up North. Being fairly recent animals in Earth's history, mammoths look enough like modern fauna not to feel too out of place in relatively Earth-like worlds, yet strange and unusual enough to serve as fantastical creatures alongside more traditional fantasy beasts. Thus, they are often placed in the uncivilized, snowbound northlands of fantasy worlds, their presence reinforcing the fact that their homes are both extremely cold and far from the comforts of civilization. In these cases, if The Horde comes from here, you might see it use the local mammoths as War Elephants, to further drive home that they come from very cold, wild and uncivilized places.
Since Tropes Are Flexible, this can be extended to other shaggy pachyderms such as mastodons and fictional mammoth- and mastodon-like creatures, as long as their presence is used to symbolize cold and ice ages. Other hairy Ice Age megafauna, such as woolly rhinos, are sometimes used to similar effect, although this is far less common.
As a final note, most real life mammoths did not live in particularly cold conditions and did not have thick coats (the only two that did were the woolly mammoth and its ancestral species, the steppe mammoth), and were very similar to modern elephants in most respects. However, they are not as famous as their woolly cousins, and so they never really show up in fiction.
See also Stock Dinosaurs.
Ice Age examples:
- Magic: The Gathering: The card Woolly Mammoths, released as part of the Ice Age deck, gains a substantial boost (specifically a common ability themed around a creature trampling over its target when attacking) as long as its owner has a snow-covered land (thematically representing a land that has been covered by the ice and snow of the titular Ice Age) in play.
- Calvin and Hobbes: In one of Calvin's Imagine Spots, a sudden ice age hits the world overnight, covering it in ice and snow and providing excellent sledding opportunities. Calvin realizes what is going on when he sees, besides a glacier covering a large part of his town, a herd of woolly mammoths passing by his house.
- In one Sunday strip of Foxtrot, Paige complains to Andy about the cold and that they should raise the thermostat, which Andy refuses as heat costs money. Paige then retorts that she expects to see a herd of mastodons (not exactly mammoths, but a close enough ice age megafauna) walk through their house since it's that cold.
- Brother Bear and its sequel are set in Alaska during the ice age, and feature woolly mammoths to prove it.
- The Ice Age film series features a number of woolly mammoths as characters, including Manfred the mammoth as part of the core cast, which have come to be some of the most easily recognizable visual symbols of the movies.
- Zigzagged in 10,000 BC. Mammoths appear to be native to the icy tundra where the caveman protagonist comes from, but are also tamed and used as beasts of burden by a pyramid-building civilization living in a warm desert.
- Stephen Baxter's "Mammoth Trilogy" uses the beasts as view point characters to chart three specific periods in human history and our relationship with the cold.
- Silverhair is about how humans arrived and survived in the mammoth's hunting grounds during the height of the ice age.
- Longtusk is about the decline and extiction of the mammoths as the ice age ends. No more ice, no more mammoths.
- Icebones features genetically engineered and revived mammoths which are used to help terraform Mars, as they are one of the few creatures which can survive in the chilly martian steppe. Mars' atmosphere being too thin to hold heat for long means using ice-adapted creatures like mammoths, and as humans abandon Mars, move back to Earth, and are implied to go extinct due to a nuclear war there, the mammoths are left alone on an icebound planet again.
- Prehistoric Park: The second episode — "A Mammoth Undertaking" — sees Nigel Marven travel back to the Ice Age to rescue its megafauna. His original intent is specifically to rescue a mammoth, and it is on these creatures, their lifestyle, their diet, their impact on their environment and the causes for their extinction that most of the segment is spent, with other animals largely restricted to brief one-off appearances. The one exception to this is an Elasmotherium, a one-horned wooly rhino the size of an elephant, that Nigel runs into by accident and also brings to the future.
- Walking with Beasts: The Ice Age segment, "Mammoth Journey", is as the name implies focused around the yearly migration of a herd of mammoths heading from the plains of the then-dry North Sea to the Alps and then back over the course of a year. Other creatures — Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal humans, cave lions, wooly rhinos — appear, but the mammoth herd's migration remains the main focus and framing device, with the other creatures appearing as animals the mammoths encounter or (in the case of the humans and lion) predators menacing them.
- The third installment of Carnivores is set in a Ice Age-type environment, so a mammoth is among the huntable animals along with a woolly rhinoceros and a saber-toothed cat.
- Transarctica: In the game's setting, everlasting clouds have blocked out the sun and thrown the Earth into a new glacial period. As most of the world become frozen tundra, mammoths reappeared as elephants grew thick coats to adapt to the cold.
- The Futurama episode "Fun on a Bun" has Fry discovering a Lost World of Ice Age creatures, which naturally includes woolly mammoths. Plus, Fry and Bender discover an ice-preserved woolly mammoth whose meat Bender grinds up into sausages for a contest, which leads to a series of unfortunate events resulting in Fry ending up in said lost world.
- In an episode of The Magic School Bus, "The Busasaurus", the class witnesses the Ice Age as they're going back in time, and there a woolly mammoth passes by the bus backwards.
- The Ice Age scenic trail in the U.S. state of Wisconsin has a logo which features a hoary mammoth striding through the snow◊.
Grim Up North examples:
- Magic: The Gathering: The loxodons are a species of humanoid elephants who normally resemble the African kind and are known for being some of the most fastidious, strict and law-abiding people in the worlds they inhabit, generally gravitating towards large cities and religious hierarchies. The exception to this are the loxodons of Tarkir, who resemble humanoid mammoths and inhabit a range of high, wild and snowy mountains. These woolly loxodons live in scattered barbarian clans and tribes in the icy wilderness, in sharp contrast to the strict and orderly loxodons of other planes.
Even among the hardiest warriors of the Temur, loxodons are respected for their adaptation to the mountain snows. — "Woolly Loxodon"
- A Song of Ice and Fire: The far north beyond the Wall is a land of extreme cold and eternal winter, implied to be kept so by supernatural means. Besides Barbarian Tribes, shaggy giants and ice demons, it is also home to Ice Age megafauna, including herds of woolly mammoths kept as mounts by the giants.
- Warhammer: Norsca, the local equivalent (more or less) to the real-life Viking lands, is a particularly brutal version of the Grim Up North. Most of it is wild, monster-haunted and unforgiving wilderness, inhabited only by insane demon-worshipping barbarians and all wrapped in some of the most staggeringly cold conditions in the Old World. Besides fantasy monsters such as manticores, trolls and such, it is also home to herds of enormous woolly mammoths, which the aforesaid barbarians regularly capture and train for war.
- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim takes place in Tamriel's Grim Up North province, the titular Skyrim. Mammoths are domesticated by giants so you can loot mammoth tusks, meat, and cheese from giant camps.
- In both Warcraft 3 and World of Warcraft, mammoths appear among the wildlife of the Grim Up North continent Northrend. In the latter they are even available as mounts for the players. Some notable variants include the woolly mammoths, which are noted to be wilder and more primal than other varieties and make for feral and cunning mounts, and white-furred ice mammoths used as mounts by the ice giants, who believe their mounts protect them from frostbite and snow blindness. WoW adds another real but less known ice age mammal, the wooly rhinoceros. As it happens, neither elephants nor rhinoceroses exist elsewhere in the game, although there are animals resembling them.