In Our Region
Mastodons were smaller than mammoths. Similar in size to modern-day elephants, with a height of 7 feet (2.1 meters) for females or 10 feet (3.1 meters) for males, adult mastodons weighed as much as 6 tons (5443 kg).
American mastodons had low-domed heads, unlike the higher-domed heads found in mammoths and modern-day Indian elephants. The tusks were less curved than those of mammoths but larger and longer than elephant tusks. Young male mastodons often displayed a short pair of secondary tusks in the lower jaw that were lost as they matured.
However, the most distinctive feature differentiating mastodons from mammoths is their cheek teeth. Unlike modern elephants and extinct mammoths, the mastodon had molars that featured distinctive, cone-like cusps. Mammoths had flat, ridged molars that look like washboards, totally different in appearance from mastodon teeth. These unusual cusped teeth give the mastodon its name, derived from the Greek ("mastos" for breast and odon(t) for tooth.)
As modern relatives, today only two genera of elephants exist: Loxodonta, the African elephant, and Elephas, the Asian elephant.
Within the proboscidean order, where there were once 7 genera of mastodons and mammoths, only these remaining 2 genera of elephants survive, and these also display diminishing populations, due to many factors. This is a disturbing trend over time, casting a shadow over the future for elephants on earth.
What were those large tusks used for? Scientists believe that the tusks helped in feeding, such as when the animals stripped tree bark off trees, as well as in achieving dominance over other animals during competition for food.
Scientists believe that sexual dimorphism, as seen in these animals, occurred as a result of male competition for females. The male's larger size and larger tusks helped them compete more aggressively for females. Male mastodons also took longer to become sexually mature than females.
Because mammoths are more closely related to elephants, we assume that mammoth behavior and lifestyle might have been similar to that of present-day elephants. The same may be true to some extent for mastodons. Studies which have revealed a long growth period to reach maturity in these animals suggest that mastodons would have required the extensive parental care that is provided in modern elephant herds.
Elephants are very social animals. Although we obviously don't know about mastodon behavior, we can make educated guesses about their behavior, based on similarities between elephant and mastodon anatomy, stature, growth, and sexual dimorphism.
Where mastodons were most numerous, vegetation consisted mainly of coniferous forest with bogs, ponds and marshes. Their feeding habits could have been very destructive. We can easily imagine such large animals toppling over trees and trampling and killing plants, which may have required them to keep moving on. It is also possible that they moved to areas where there were salt licks or other minerals they needed.
Human predation may have hastened the extinction of mastodons, but this remains open to discussion. Climate change has also been suggested as a factor in their extinction.
Of Historical Interest
Then in 1808, President Thomas Jefferson paid to have mastodon fossils from the Big Bone Lick site near the Ohio River shipped to the White House. Jefferson was fascinated with the fossils and spread them out for study in what would later be designated as the East Room. Part of these mastodon fossils eventually ended up in the collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.
Text: Margaret Dykens and Lynett Gillette