Sunday, July 8, 2018

Mastodon: Beast of the Week

This week we shall be checking out a popular prehistoric mammal that has integrated itself into much of our pop culture, from Power Rangers to Heavy Metal, and even played a role in American History.  Let's look at Mammut americanus, or as it's more commonly known as, the American Mastodon!  (I will from here on out be referring this animal as Mastodon, even though Mammut is the official genus, because Mammut includes many other species that will probably be covered in the future, and will therefore be less confusing.)

A female American Mastodon in the Pleistocene marshes of what is now New Jersey.  Watercolor reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.

Mastodon was a member of the group of mammals that includes modern elephants, called probiscidea, that lived in what is now North America, mostly the eastern coast of the United States, between 3 million and as recent as 11 thousand years ago, during the Pleistocene.  The largest specimens could grow to be over ten feet tall at the shoulder with sixteen-foot long tusks.  Average size, however, seems to hover a bit over seven feet tall at the shoulder.  Mastodon, like modern elephants, was sexually size dimorphic, with the males typically being larger than the females.  The males also tended to have longer, and more dramatically curved tusks than the females.  The original genus name, Mastodon, translates to "Breast Tooth" because of all the cool things you could name a totally awesome prehistoric beast, Georges Cuvier, French zoologist, and founding father of paleontology, apparently just really wanted to name something after boobs back in 1817.

I don't see the resemblance.

Mastodon earned its name because its back teeth were very different from the teeth of modern elephants, and even the teeth of Woolly Mammoths, both of which had teeth that had shallow winding ridges on their surfaces for grinding up soft plants.  Mastodon's teeth were more similar to molars, and possessed tall peaks on the tops of them, which were arranged in rows. (which apparently looked like breasts to enough people in the 1800s)  Mastodon teeth were better suited at processing a wider variety of plant material, including tough twigs and pine needles.  This makes sense because these kinds of plants were abundant in Mastodon's East coast forested habitat back in the Pleistocene.  Further, Mastodon's habitat would have experiences more dramatic seasonal changes, with different plants being present during different parts of the year, so Mastodon would have needed to have food sources all year.

American Mastodon skeleton on display at the Rutgers Geology Museum in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Other than the teeth, Mastodon had a number of other characteristics that set it apart from its relatives.  Overall its body is longer and lower to the ground, with shorter, stocky legs.  It skull was more elongated, and less tall than other elephants, and it also possessed a prominent hump over its shoulders, where big muscles that helped to support the massive skull would have been attached.  Mastodon's tusks were longer than those of an modern elephant's, and curved slightly upwards and inwards.  These tusks were probably used for a variety of jobs, just like they are in modern elephants, but because they were so long and stretched out in front of the animal, they probably were better at moving trees and brush out of the way as the animal moved through the forest.  This ensured that the sensitive trunk and eyes were less likely to get poked by a branches and thorns. These tusks were also probably used for combat between Mastodons and also helped defend it from potential predators, which would have included humans.

Mastodon also would have had a coat of bushy fur covering most of its body.  This coat probably wasn't as thick as that of a Woolly Mammoth's, but it was certainly warm enough to keep Mastodon warm during the Coastal Winters.  

Mastodon is present in American history because Thomas Jefferson, one of the United States' founding fathers, was fascinated by them.  He collected Mastodon bones, along with the fossils of as many other prehistoric animals he could get his hands on, and studied them extensively.  In fact, when Lewis and Clark were about to embark on their journey into the previously uncharted (by Europeans) Western United States, Jefferson warned them to be on the lookout for possible living Mastodons, since he believed there was still a chance they could be alive in the wilderness somewhere.  Of course, they didn't find any living Mastodons, since they had indeed gone extinct thousands of years prior, but it's cool to consider that this prehistoric elephant used to be part of cryptozoology, like Sasquatch and the various lake monsters that some people continue to hunt for today. 
No longer a cryptid due to being extinct, but still a real animal!
That is all for this week!  As always feel free to comment below!


Agusti, Jordi & Mauricio Anton (2002). Mammoths, Sabretooths, and Hominids. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 106.

Fisher, D. C. (1996). "Extinction of Proboscideans in North America". In Shoshani, J.; Tassy, P. The Proboscidea: Evolution and Palaeoecology of Elephants and Their Relatives. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. pp. 296–315.

Giaimo, Cara. “Thomas Jefferson Built This Country On Mastodons.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 1 Sept. 2017,

Green, J. L.; DeSantis, L. R. G.; Smith, G. J. (2017). "Regional variation in the browsing diet of Pleistocene Mammut americanum (Mammalia, Proboscidea) as recorded by dental microwear textures". Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. 487: 59–70. 

Larramendi, A. (2016). "Shoulder height, body mass and shape of proboscideans" (PDF). Acta Palaeontologica Polonica. 61.

Lepper, B. T.; Frolking, T. A.; Fisher, D. C.; Goldstein, G.; Sanger, J. E.; Wymer, D. A.; Ogden, J.G.; Hooge, P. E. (1991). "Intestinal Contents of a late Pleistocene Mastodont from Midcontinental North America". Quaternary Research. 36: 120–125.


  1. Maybe! It would be pretty much the same but with slightly curvier tusks and a bit more bulk. The mount in the photograph at Rutgers has replica male tusks. However the actual skeleton belonged to a female. The real tusks she originally had are on display at her feet and were too fragile to actually put on the mount, itself.