The Recently Extinct American Mastodon
The elephant-like American mastodon was a distant relative of the woolly mammoth with which it shared its ice age home in North America.
Meaning of scientific name
‘Mastodon’ means ‘nipple tooth’.
Pronunciation of scientific name
Height: 2.4-3m (8-9ft) to the shoulder, Length: 4.5m (15ft ), Weight: 3,600- 5500kg (8,000-12,000lbs)
Mastodons were related to modern elephants, which they superficially resembled, having long tusks and a flexible trunk. They were stockier than elephants with thicker limb bones and they had a coat of long hairs, which was probably a rich, dark brown. Mastodons most closely resembled the extinct woolly mammoth but were smaller, with shorter limbs and straight, rather than spiralled tusks. One of the key distinguishing features between a mammoth and a mastodon is the teeth. Mastodon cheek teeth consisted of pairs of conical cusps resembling a miniature mountain-like landscape. The teeth place the mastodon as a primitive and distant relative of mammoths and elephants (which share the same tooth pattern).
Finds of mastodons have been made through much of North America but they seem to have been most common along the eastern seaboard and in an area immediately south of the Great Lakes.
Mastodons were found in a variety of habitats, usually where there were trees and shrubs. They were especially common in open, swampy forests.
Mastodons were herbivores, browsing on trees (mainly coniferous), shrubs and swamp plants.
The social behaviour of mastodons is still a controversial issue. Many of the finds are of solitary animals leading some to suggest they did not live in herds or at least not in large numbers like elephants. Mastodon young were thought to have taken around 10 years to reach sexual maturity requiring a longer period of maternal protection than elephants. It wouldn�t be surprising if mastodons lived in matriarchal groups like modern elephants, as the long term investment in raising offspring is a risky strategy that benefits from protective herding. There is some evidence that mastodons may have undertaken seasonal migrations in search of food.
Extinct from approximately 12,500 years ago.
There have been over 200 finds of mastodon fossils across the whole of the continent of North America. These finds range from individual bones, teeth and tusks to entire preserved skeletons. In 1977 a unique find of a complete mastodon was made in Washington State in the US. A human-made spear point was also found embedded in the ribs. Further investigation showed that the bones had healed around the spear point, suggesting that although humans had attacked this animal, it survived and died much later of old age.
Mastodons belong to an ancient family called the Mammutidae, which originated some 30 to 35 million years ago in North Africa. This makes them an older group of elephantine animal than the mammoth, which didn�t appear until around 10 million years ago. In this sense the mastodon is one of the truly prehistoric creatures of North America. Like much of the megafauna in North America, an earlier form of Pleistocene mastodon entered the continent via the Bering Land bridge around 15 million years ago. This ancestral form gave rise to only one mastodon species in North America. Its closest relative – the Borson�s mastodon – lived in Europe about 3 million years ago.