London, September 2 : An extremely rare fossilized skull of a 400,000 years old steppe mammoth has been unearthed in France, a discovery that could shed much needed light on the evolution of these mighty beats.
Though many isolated teeth of steppe mammoth have been found, but only a handful of skeletons exist; and in these surviving specimens, the skull is rarely intact.
But, according to a report by BBC News, the skull specimen, found by palaeontologists Frederic Lacombat and Dick Mol, is well preserved.
It belongs to a male steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii) that stood about 3.7m (12ft) tall and lived about 400,000 years ago, during Middle Pleistocene times.
The researchers have estimated that the animal was about 35 years of age when it died.
According to researchers, the steppe mammoth is of vital importance for understanding mammoth evolution, as it represents the transitional phase between an ancient species known as the southern mammoth and the more recent woolly mammoth.
But comparatively little is known about this intermediate stage of their evolution.
"This specimen is of extreme importance because we don't know that much about the Middle Pleistocene," Mol, from the Museum of Natural History in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, told BBC News.
"Lots of the sediments have been eroded and not so many localities are known where we can find fossils," he added.
"We cannot keep saying that we have the southern mammoth at the beginning of the Pleistocene, then we have something which we are not sure about, and finally we have the woolly mammoth at the end of the Pleistocene," according to Mol.
"We need to find what I call the 'missing link' in mammoth evolution," he added.
The southern mammoth appears to have lived in a savannah environment, and was probably a "browser", feeding on trees and shrubs.
However, the molar teeth of steppe mammoth and woolly mammoth show that these animals were adapted to grazing.
This is thought to represent an adaptation to climate change; as conditions got colder and drier over the Pleistocene period, the savannah disappeared, making way for grassy steppe.
Mammoth had to adapt their diets accordingly.
"If they have a complete skull, then that would be very valuable," said Dr Adrian Lister, a mammoth expert from London's Natural History Museum and University College London.
According to a theory developed by Dr Lister and his colleagues, the southern mammoth was once widespread in Eurasia, but evolved into a cold-adapted form - the steppe mammoth - in eastern Asia, where the climate has been chilly for the last two million years.