Mastodons (Greek: μαστός "breast" and ὀδούς, "tooth") are
any species of extinct mammutid proboscideans in the genus Mammut,
distantly related to elephants, that inhabited North and Central
America during the late
Miocene or late
Pliocene up to their
extinction at the end of the
Pleistocene 10,000 to 11,000 years
ago. Mastodons lived in herds and were predominantly forest
dwelling animals that fed on a mixed diet obtained by browsing and
grazing with a seasonal preference for browsing, similar to living
M. americanum, the American mastodon, is the youngest and best-known
species of the genus. They disappeared from
North America as part of a
mass extinction of most of the
Pleistocene megafauna, widely believed
to have been related to overexploitation by Clovis hunters, and
possibly also to climate change.
3.1 Social behavior
4 Distribution and habitat
6 See also
9 External links
Exhuming the First American Mastodon, 1806 painting by Charles Willson
The first remnant of Mammut, a tooth some 2.2 kg (5 lb) in
weight, was discovered in the village of Claverack, New York, in 1705.
The mystery animal became known as the "incognitum". The first
bones to be collected and studied scientifically were found in 1739 at
Big Bone Lick State Park, Kentucky, by French soldiers, who carried
them to the Mississippi River, from where they were transported to the
National Museum of Natural History in Paris. Some time later,
similar teeth were found in South Carolina, which, according to the
slaves, looked remarkably similar to those of African elephants. This
was soon followed by discoveries of complete bones and tusks in Ohio;
people started referring to the "incognitum" as a mammoth, like the
ones that were being dug out in Siberia. Anatomists noted that the
teeth of mammoth and elephants were different from those of the
"incognitum", which possessed rows of large conical cusps, indicating
that they were dealing with a distinct species. In 1806 the French
Georges Cuvier named the incognitum "mastodon".
The name mastodon (or mastodont) means "breast tooth" (Ancient Greek:
μαστός "breast" and ὀδούς, "tooth"), and was
assigned by the French naturalist
Georges Cuvier in 1817, for the
nipple-like projections on the crowns of its molars.
Mastodon as a genus name is obsolete; the valid name is Mammut, a
name that preceded Cuvier's description, making
Mastodon a junior
synonym. The change was met with resistance, and authors sometimes
applied "Mastodon" as an informal name; consequently it became the
common term for members of the genus.
M. americanum, the American mastodon, the best known and the last
species of Mammut. Its earliest occurrences date from the early-middle
Pliocene (early Blancan stage). It had a continent-wide distribution,
especially during the
Pleistocene epoch, known from fossil sites
ranging from present-day
New England in the north, to
Florida, southern California, and as far south as Honduras. The
American mastodon resembled a woolly mammoth in appearance, with a
thick coat of shaggy hair. It had tusks that sometimes exceeded 5
meters (16 ft) in length; they curved upwards, but less
dramatically than those of the woolly mammoth. Its main habitat
was cold spruce woodlands, and it is believed to have browsed in
herds. It became extinct at the end of the Pleistocene
approximately 11,000 years ago.
M. matthewi—found in the Snake Creek Formation of Nebraska, dating
from the late Hemphillian. Some authors consider it practically
indistinguishable from M. americanum. There is one report of
it in China.
M. raki—Its remains were found in the Palomas Formation, near Truth
or Consequences, New Mexico, dating from the early-middle Pliocene,
between 4.5 and 3.6 Ma. It coexisted with Equus simplicidens
Gigantocamelus and differs from M. americanum in having a
relatively longer and narrower third molar, similar to the
description of the defunct genus Pliomastodon, which supports its
arrangement as an early species of Mammut. However, like
M. matthewi, some authors do not consider it sufficiently
distinct from M. americaum to warrant its own species.
M. cosoensis—found in the Coso Formation of California, dating from
the late Pliocene, originally a species of Pliomastodon, it was
later assigned to Mammut.
Since a tentative 1977 report of M. matthewi in China, there have been
no reports of currently recognized Mammut species outside of North
America according to Paleobiology database (which does not recognize
M. borsoni). However, the status of Mammut or
in the literature appears equivocal.
Comparison of woolly mammoth (L) and American mastodon (R)
Excavation of a specimen in a golf course in Heath, Ohio, 1989
Mammut is a genus of the extinct family Mammutidae, related to the
Elephantidae (mammoths and elephants), from which
it originally diverged approximately 27 million years ago. The
following cladogram shows the placement of the American mastodon among
other proboscideans, based on hyoid characteristics:
Mammut americanum (American mastodon)
Loxodonta africana (African elephant)
Elephas maximus (Asian elephant)
Mammuthus columbi (Columbian mammoth)
Over the years, several fossils from localities in North America,
Africa and Asia have been attributed to Mammut, but only the North
American remains have been named and described, one of them being
M. furlongi, named from remains found in the Juntura Formation of
Oregon, dating from the late Miocene. However, it is no longer
considered valid, leaving only four valid species.
A complete mtDNA sequence has been obtained from the tooth of an
M. americanum skeleton found in permafrost in northern
Alaska. The remains are thought to be 50,000 to 130,000 years
old. This sequence has been used as an outgroup to refine divergence
dates in the evolution of the Elephantidae. The rate of mtDNA
sequence change in proboscideans was found to be significantly lower
than in primates.
Restoration of an American mastodon
Modern reconstructions based on partial and skeletal remains reveal
that mastodons were very similar in appearance to elephants and, to a
lesser degree, mammoths, though not closely related to either one.
Compared to mammoths, mastodons had shorter legs, a longer body and
were more heavily muscled, a build similar to that of the current
Asian elephants. The average body size of the species M. americanum
was around 2.3 m (7 ft 7 in) in height at the
shoulders, corresponding to a large female or a small male, but large
males could grow up to 2.8 m (9 ft 2 in) in height.
However, the 35-year-old specimen AMNH 9950 grew 2.89 metres
(9.5 ft) tall and weighed 7.8 tonnes (7.7 long tons; 8.6 short
tons), and another male grew 3.25 metres (10.7 ft) tall and
weighed 11 tonnes (11 long tons; 12 short tons).
American mastodon molars at the State Museum of Pennsylvania
Like modern elephants, the females were smaller than the males. They
had a low and long skull with long curved tusks, with those of the
males being more massive and more strongly curved. Mastodons had
cusp-shaped teeth, very different from mammoth and elephant teeth
(which have a series of enamel plates), well-suited for chewing leaves
and branches of trees and shrubs.
Female and calf American mastodon at the George Page Museum
Based on the characteristics of mastodon bone sites, it can be
inferred that, as in modern proboscideans, the mastodon social group
consisted of adult females and young, living in bonded groups called
mixed herds. The males abandoned the mixed herds once reaching sexual
maturity and lived either alone or in male bond groupings. As in
modern elephants, there probably was no seasonal synchrony of
mating activity, with both males and females seeking out each other
for mating when sexually active.
Mastodons have been characterized as predominantly browsing
animals.[note 1] Most accounts of gut contents have identified
coniferous twigs as the dominant element in their diet. Other accounts
(Burning tree mastodon) have reported no coniferous content and
suggest selective feeding on low, herbaceous vegetation, implying a
mixed browsing and grazing diet, with evidence provided by studies
of isotopic bone chemistry indicating a seasonal preference for
browsing. Study of mastodon teeth microwear patterns indicates
that mastodons could adjust their diet according to the ecosystem,
with regionally specific feeding patterns corresponding to boreal
forest versus cypress swamps, while a population at a given location
was sometimes able to maintain its dietary niche through changes in
climate and browse species availability.
Distribution and habitat
Restoration of an American mastodon herd by Charles R. Knight
The range of most species of Mammut is unknown as their occurrences
are restricted to few localities, the exception being the American
mastodon (M. americanum), which is one of the most widely
Pleistocene proboscideans in North America.
M. americanum fossil sites range in time from the faunal stages
of Blancan to Rancholabrean and in locations from as far north as
Alaska, as far east as Florida, and as far south as the state of
Puebla in central Mexico, with an isolated record from Honduras,
probably reflecting the results of the maximum expansion achieved by
the American mastodon during the Late Pleistocene. A few isolated
reports tell of mastodons being found along the east coast up to the
New England region, with high concentrations in the
Mid-Atlantic region. There is strong evidence indicating that
the members of Mammut were forest dwelling proboscideans,
predominating in woodlands and forests, and browsed on trees and
shrubs. They apparently did not disperse southward to South
America, it being speculated that this was because of a dietary
specialization on a particular type of vegetation.
Fossil evidence indicates that mastodons probably disappeared from
North America about 10,500 years ago as part of a mass extinction
of most of the
Pleistocene megafauna that is widely believed to have
been a result of human hunting pressure. The latest
Paleo-Indians entered the Americas and expanded to relatively large
numbers 13,000 years ago, and their hunting may have caused a
gradual attrition of the mastodon population. Analysis of
tusks of mastodons from the American Great Lakes region over a span of
several thousand years prior to their extinction in the area shows a
trend of declining age at maturation; this is contrary to what one
would expect if they were experiencing stresses from an unfavorable
environment, but is consistent with a reduction in intraspecific
competition that would result from a population being reduced by human
List of museums and colleges with mastodon fossils on display
^ Browsing is a type of herbivory in which a herbivore (or, more
narrowly defined, a folivore) feeds on leaves, soft shoots, or fruits
of high growing, generally woody, plants such as shrubs. This is
contrasted with grazing, usually associated with animals feeding on
grass or other low vegetation.
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