10 Facts About Mastodons

Mastodon. Stuart Dee / Getty Images

Mastodons and Mammoths are often confused—which is understandable since they were both giant, shaggy, prehistoric elephants that roamed the plains of Pleistocene North America and Eurasia from two million to as recently as 20,000 years ago. Below you'll discover 10 fascinating facts about the Mastodon, the lesser-known half of this pachyderm pair.

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The Name Mastodon Means "Nipple Tooth"

A set of Mastodon teeth

 Wikimedia Commons

Okay, you can stop laughing now; "nipple" refers to the characteristic shape of the Mastodon's molar teeth, not its mammary glands. (You can blame the French naturalist Georges Cuvier, who coined the name "Mastodon" in the early 19th century.) For the record, the Mastodon's official genus name is Mammut, which is so confusingly similar to Mammuthus (the genus name of the Woolly Mammoth) that "Mastodon" is the preferred usage of both scientists and the general public.

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Mastodons, Like Mammoths, Were Covered with Fur

Mastodon depicted in a 3D rendering
Wikimedia Commons

The Woolly Mammoth gets all the press, but Mastodons (and particularly the most famous member of the breed, the North American Mastodon) also had thick coats of shaggy hair, to protect them from the intense cold of Pleistocene North America and Eurasia. It's possible that Ice Age humans found it easier to hunt (and strip the pelts off) Woolly Mammoths as opposed to Mastodons, which may help to explain why the Mastodon's fur is so relatively unappreciated today.

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The Mastodon Family Tree Originated in Africa

Mastodon skeleton in a museum exhibit
Wikimedia Commons

About 30 million years ago (give or take a few million years), a population of prehistoric elephants in Africa branched off into a group that eventually included the genus Mammut as well as the lesser-known ancestral pachyderms Eozygodon and Zygolophodon. By the late Pliocene epoch, Mastodons were thick on the ground in Eurasia, and by the ensuing Pleistocene they had crossed the Siberian land bridge and populated North America.

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Mastodons Were Browsers Rather than Grazers

Mastodon illustration
Wikimedia Commons

"Grazing" and "browsing" are important terms to know when you're talking about plant-eating mammals. While Woolly Mammoths grazed on grass--lots and lots of grass--Mastodons were primarily browsers, nibbling on shrubs and the low-lying branches of trees. (Lately, there has been some controversy about the extent to which Mastodons were exclusive browsers; some paleontologists believe species in the genus Mammut were not averse to grazing when circumstances demanded.)

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Male Mastodons Fought One Another with Their Tusks

Mastodon skeleton reconstructed in museum
Wikimedia Commons

Mastodons were famous for their long, curved, dangerous-looking tusks (which still weren't quite as long, curved and dangerous-looking as the tusks wielded by Woolly Mammoths).

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Some Mastodon Bones Bear the Marks of Tuberculosis

An illustration of a Mastodon skeleton
Wikimedia Commons

Not only human beings are susceptible to the ravages of tuberculosis. Many other mammals perish from this slow-developing bacterial infection, which can scar bones, as well as lung tissue, when they don't kill an animal outright The discovery of Mastodon specimens bearing physical evidence of tuberculosis raises the interesting theory that these prehistoric elephants were doomed by exposure to the early human settlers of North America, who brought this disease with them from the Old World. 

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Mastodons, Unlike Mammoths, Were Solitary Animals

An imagining of a Mastodon
Wikimedia Commons

Woolly Mammoth fossils tend to be discovered in association with other Woolly Mammoth fossils, leading paleontologists to infer that these elephants formed small family units (if not larger herds). By contrast, most Mastodon remains are completely isolated, which is evidence (but not proof) of a solitary lifestyle among full-grown adults. It's possible that adult Mastodons only gathered together during ​the breeding season, and the only long-term associations were between mothers and children, as is the pattern with modern elephants.

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There Are Four Identified Mastodon Species

A mastodon skull
Wikimedia Commons

The most famous Mastodon species is the North American Mastodon, Mammut americanum. Two others--M. matthewi and M. raki--are so similar to M. americanum that not all paleontologists agree that they even merit their own species designation, while a fourth, M. cosoensis, was originally assigned as a species of the obscure Pliomastodon. All of these proboscids ranged across the expanse of Pliocene and Pleistocene North America and Eurasia during the Pleistocene epoch.

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The First American Mastodon Fossil Was Discovered in New York

Photo of a reconstructed Mastodon on display at a museum exhibit

Public Domain 

In 1705, in the town of Claverack, New York, a farmer discovered a fossilized tooth weighing a whopping five pounds. The man traded his find to a local politician for a glass of rum; the politician then gifted the tooth to the state's governor; and the governor shipped it back to England with the label "Tooth of a Giant." The fossil tooth--which, you guessed it, belonged to a North American Mastodon--quickly achieved fame as the "Incognitum," or "unknown thing," a designation it retained until naturalists had learned more about Pleistocene life.

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Mastodons Went Extinct After the Last Ice Age

An illustration of a mastodon fighting early homonids
Florida Museum of Natural History

There is one unfortunate thing Mastodons share in common with Woolly Mammoths: both of these elephant ancestors went extinct about 11,000 years ago, shortly after the last Ice Age. No one knows for sure what precipitated their demise, though it was likely a combination of climate change, increased competition for accustomed food sources, and (possibly) hunting by early human settlers, who knew that a single Mastodon could feed an entire tribe for a week, and clothe it for years!