|2.9 to 3.25 m (9.19 to 10.7 ft)
|4.5 m (14.7 ft)
|Cenozoic – Quaternary
|8 to 11 tons (17,600 to 24,000 lbs)
|Mammalia, Proboscidea, & Mammutidae
|North America, Europe, Asia
The mastodon was a large prehistoric elephant with a thick, shaggy coat.
Along with the mammoths, mastodons are among the most well-known of Earth’s Pleistocene megafauna.
The name “mastodon,” which means “breast tooth,” refers to the nipple-like projections on the crown of mastodon molars.
The common name “mastodon” is often used to refer to members of the Mammut genus.
However, the name may also apply to members of the larger Mammutidae family, which includes the Mammut and their closest relatives.
These elephantine mammals evolved during the Early Miocene Epoch, about 23 million years ago, and were alive beyond the Pleistocene Epoch.
Mastodons evolved in Africa, moved to Eurasia during the Pliocene, and became established in North America about 2.3 million years ago during the Pleistocene Epoch.
They eventually went extinct about 10,000 years ago as one of the animal groups lost during the Quaternary extinction event.
Like mammoths, mastodon fossils are commonly preserved in ice, which is why they’re often discovered in relatively good condition.
In the early years of their discovery, mastodon remains were misidentified as mammoths due to the similarities in their appearance.
In this article, we’ll detail some of the most fascinating facts about the mastodon, including its unique characteristics, physical attributes, and ecological and scientific significance.
Mastodons are similar in general appearance to modern elephants.
They’re large, heavy mammals known for their flexible trunks and long ivory tusks.
The mastodon was built like this, too, but with several notable differences.
First, they were slightly shorter than mammoths and elephants (both of which were around the same size).
But they were more heavily built, with short, stocky legs and a robust body.
The average shoulder height for male mastodons was typically between 2.9 and 3.25 meters (9.19–10.7 feet), with an average weight of about 8 to 11 tons.
This means they were up to 80% heavier than similarly-sized modern elephants.
Their bodies were also relatively longer compared to their modern relatives.
Like other elephantine mammals, male mastodons were generally larger than females.
Mastodons have lower and flatter skulls compared to the high-domed skulls of modern elephants.
The most prominent feature of their skull was the long, curved tusks that extended from their upper jaws.
Mastodon tusks grew parallel to each other and had a strong upward curvature.
These tusks grew to a length of up to 4.9 meters (15 feet) and were useful for various purposes, including digging for food, stripping bark from trees, and possibly for defense.
Some mastodon individuals also had a second tusk below the upper ones.
These tusks were highly reduced, with an average length of about 2.5 meters.
Some species, such as Mammut pacificus, did not have a second pair of tusks at all.
In the species with short lower tusks, only males had it, and it was absent in females.
Like modern elephants, mastodons had a prehensile trunk, which was useful for grasping and manipulating food and other objects around.
However, their trunk was somewhat shorter and less dexterous compared to that of their relatives.
Mastodons are usually depicted with a coat of thick, reddish-brown fur similar to that of the woolly mammoth.
However, there has been no direct evidence for this in the fossil record, suggesting that the mastodon’s hair covering was probably unlike that of mammoths.
The shaggy coat is often implied as a likely adaptation to the cold Pleistocene environments they inhabited.
Habitat and Distribution
Mastodons were primarily inhabitants of North and Central America during the Pleistocene Epoch, between 2.6 million years ago and 11,700 years ago.
But before their dispersal to North America, mastodons also lived in Eurasia, and their ancestors were from Africa.
In North America, their distribution ranged from the southern United States to as far north as Alaska and across Central America into parts of present-day Mexico.
The American mastodon (M. americanum) is the most widely distributed species in the genus.
In fact, it is considered the most widely distributed proboscidean in North America during the Pleistocene Epoch.
Other mastodon species are only known from isolated populations in a few localities.
Mastodons were contemporaneous with mammoths in North America.
However, they were more adaptable creatures and lived in a variety of environments compared to the mammoths that mainly lived in the Tundra and grasslands.
The most preferred habitats of the mastodons were the forested and wooded areas, particularly in regions near rivers, lakes, and wetlands.
These environments provided them with a source of water and a diverse selection of vegetation to browse on, including leaves, twigs, and shrubs.
The range of the mastodons did not extend into South America.
Experts think they were restricted to North America because the vegetation that formed the bulk of their preferred diet was not available in South America at the time.
The Pleistocene Epoch, which was the height of mastodon dispersal across the Northern Hemisphere, was characterized by frequent climatic fluctuation.
This period, known as the Pleistocene glaciation period, was marked by recurring glacial and interglacial periods.
During glacial phases, large ice sheets were formed in the polar regions and extended to adjacent continents.
Sea levels also dropped, causing significant changes in the local climates.
The ice ages were typically interrupted by periods of warmer temperatures with melting ice sheets and high sea levels.
Behavior and Diet
Given their size and bulky build, mastodons were relatively slow mammals that moved with a ponderous gait.
Their short legs and stocky build seem to have been better adapted for strength and stability than speed.
The social structure of mastodons was similar to that of modern elephants.
They likely lived in small family groups that comprised females and their young.
Adult males would typically leave these family groups after attaining maturity.
They either lived alone or formed loose associations with other males.
Mastodons were not strongly migratory.
They were selective feeders but were able to adapt their diet based on the availability of food in their ecosystem.
Mastodon populations within a given location are often able to maintain the same dietary niche despite changes in the climate and food availability.
However, the fluctuation of glacial and interglacial periods may have affected their overall distribution.
For instance, evidence suggests that the American mastodon stayed away from the cold far north of North America during glacial periods, only spreading to this area when the conditions were more favorable.
Mastodons were browsing herbivores, meaning they primarily ate leaves, twigs, shrubs, and other non-grass vegetation.
This is unlike the diet of mammoths, which consisted mainly of tundra grass and shrubs.
Their specialized dentition, which consisted of ridged molars with blunt, cone-like cusps on their crown, is one of the most distinctive features of mastodons.
The name mastodon, which means “nipple tooth or breast tooth,” refers to this distinctive nipple-like protrusion.
This dentition was effective for grinding and processing fibrous plant materials, which formed the bulk of their food.
Evidence from the preserved gut content of mastodon remains shows that they mainly ate coniferous twigs as their main food.
However, they also ate leaves, herbaceous vegetation, and even grass occasionally.
During glacial periods, when grasslands were more prevalent, these giant mammals would have had to incorporate some grasses into their diet, but their primary focus remained on non-grass vegetation.
Mastodons used their trunks to grasp and manipulate vegetation into their mouths.
Their tusks also helped to strip leaves and branches from trees and shrubs.
Like many species of modern elephants, mastodons had no specific mating season.
Males and females sought out each other for mating whenever they were sexually active.
Males likely engaged in ritualized mating displays or even contested physically to establish dominance and earn the right to mate with females.
After successful mating, females had a lengthy gestation period.
It’s hard to determine just how long the gestation period for mastodons lasted, but it was probably similar to that of elephants, which is about 22 months.
This long gestation period allowed the developing calf to grow to a sufficient size and develop the necessary adaptations for survival.
Calves could probably stand and move around on their own shortly after birth but would have still depended on the parent for care and protection from predators for a few more years.
Mastodon juveniles grew rapidly during their infancy.
Over the next few months or years (about three years), the calf would gradually transition from a complete milk-based diet to gradually incorporating vegetation into its diet.
The mother played a crucial role in teaching the calf how to forage and use its trunk effectively.
Mastodons, like many large mammals, had relatively long lifespans.
They could live for several decades, with estimates suggesting that they could reach the age of 60 years or more under favorable conditions.
Evolution and History
Mastodons belong to the order Proboscidea, which includes modern elephants and their extinct relatives.
Their ancestors were small, pig-sized proboscideans that diverged from the same common ancestors as hyraxes and sirenians during the Paleocene Epoch (about 50 million years ago).
Early proboscideans lacked the elongated trunk and tusk that would later characterize the group.
They lived in Africa, where they evolved in isolation until the continent collided with Eurasia during the Early Miocene, about 18 to 19 million years ago.
This collision formed the “Gomphotherium land bridge,” which allowed the interchange of species across the two continents.
By this time, the mastodons (family Mammutidae) had already broken off from the family that gave rise to mammoths and modern elephants (family Elephantidae)
This divergence took place about 25 million years ago.
Over time, mastodons diversified into various species, each adapted to different environments and regions.
Over the course of the Early Pleistocene Epoch, all proboscideans outside of the Americas, except the true elephants, became extinct.
However, the mastodons in North America continued to thrive, becoming one of the major megafaunas of North America during this period.
Mastodon populations in North America began to decline during the Quaternary extinction event.
This event killed off most of North America’s megafauna.
It was caused by a combination of factors, including climate change and the hunting activities of Paleo-Indians that had just arrived on the continent at the time.
Interactions With Other Species
During the Pleistocene Epoch, mastodons lived alongside a wide range of large animals collectively referred to as megafauna.
This includes other proboscideans like mammoths and other large animals such as woolly rhinoceros, ground sloths, wild horses, and so on.
Mastodons competed with these other herbivorous megafauna for access to vegetation.
However, the fact that they had a specialized browsing diet partitioned their niche entirely and limited competition between these groups.
Large carnivorous animals, such as saber-toothed cats, bear dogs, and giant wolves (dire wolves), were also present in North America during the Pleistocene.
Although mastodons were large and had giant tusks to defend themselves, the predators they were up against were built to take down large prey.
Some mastodon individuals probably fell victim to predation sometimes.
Young, sick, or injured individuals were the major targets of these predators and were taken down occasionally.
As one of the primary consumers of Pleistocene North America, mastodons played a vital role in shaping their ecosystem.
Through their browsing habits and interactions with vegetation, mastodons may have shaped the composition and structure of their habitats.
For example, their feeding activities helped with the pruning of certain plant species, seed dispersal, and the general circulation of nutrients within their ecosystem.
The arrival of early humans in North America changed the ecological dynamics in the region.
The hunting humans likely interacted with mastodons as both prey and competitors.
Evidence suggests that early humans hunted mastodons for their meat, bones, and other resources.
These interactions contributed to the decline and extinction of the mastodons about 10,000 years ago.
Considering how recently they lived and their interactions with early humans, mastodons hold major cultural and scientific significance.
Mastodons have been a subject of human interest for thousands of years.
Paleolithic peoples in North America created intricate cave paintings and carvings featuring these primitive elephants, suggesting they probably held some cultural or spiritual significance to these early human populations.
They’re also mentioned in myths and oral traditions of various Native American tribes.
The discovery of mastodon fossils in more recent times dates back to the 18th century.
Initially, scientists and fossil hunters confused their identity with that of the more popular mammoths, but this was later clarified as more fossils turned up.
Mastodon and mammoth fossils are often discovered in relatively well-preserved conditions.
The discovery of these well-preserved remains, such as the famous “Warren Mastodon,” sparked scientific interest both to paleontologists and archeologists.
Many of the mastodon discovery sites (especially the famous kill sites) present an overlap between ancient human societies and the animals that they interacted with, which makes them very instructive.
Mastodons and other animals that went extinct during the Quaternary extinction are considered very important to conversations about extinction and conservation.
They’re the best example of how human activities have contributed to the disappearance of various animal species and our role in protecting them.
Mastodons were elephant-like mammals that lived in the forest and woodlands of North America and Eurasia during the Pleistocene Epoch.
They’re similar in appearance to elephants but have a more robust appearance compared to their modern relatives.
Mastodons are known for their distinctive dentition, long tusks, and shaggy coat of hair, which helped to protect them from the harsh cold temperatures of the Pleistocene.
The study of mastodons and their extinction, along with that of other Pleistocene megafauna, has been a subject of extensive research in the scientific world—made better by an abundance of fossils.
So far, we’re still learning about the causes of their decline, including the role of climate change and human activities in driving them to extinction.
The insights gained from studying these prehistoric behemoths may help protect species that are currently on the brink of extinction today.