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Gone but not forgotten: American mastodon


Similar to the woolly mammoth, the enormous American mastodon succumbed to climate change and increased hunting 10,500 years ago

 Thousands of years ago, at the end of Pleistocene era, a great many large mammals went extinct. In fact, during the last 11,000 years the North American continent has lost more than 30 per cent of its large mammal species, including the American mastodon (Mammut americanum).

Similar in appearance to the mammoth in terms of its body shape and shaggy fur, the mastodon was in fact only distantly related to its lookalike – with their nearest common ancestor walking the planet some 27 million years ago.

The American mastodon had shorter legs and a longer body than the more commonly known trunked mammals. Nevertheless, at 2.3-2.8m tall at the shoulders, and weighing up to 4.5 tonnes, the mastodon was still a sizeable creature. Long ivory tusks, up to a massive 5m in length, were held by its smooth, flattened skull. The distinguishing feature for taxonomists between the mastodon and mammoths and elephants was seen in the teeth. Instead of grass-grinding enamel plates, the mastodon had cusped, ‘nipple-like’ molars to break down branches and leaves – hence the Greek origins of the mastodon’s name. In total there were four known sub-species of mastodon, all of which are now extinct. However, these are so similar that they can only be differentiated by differences in their teeth, and some scientists don’t believe they are different at all.

American mastodons were herd animals, presumed to live in matriarchal groups consisting of females and juveniles, similar to elephants today. Males would abandon the natal group once they reached maturity, and live alone or in groups with other males. Elephants today have seasonal mating patterns, but it is thought that mastodons would continuously seek each other out to mate from the age of sexual maturity. Groups would roam cold woodlands and coniferous forests throughout the American continent, browsing on trees and shrubs and grazing on grasses.

Approximately 13,000 years ago, greater numbers of paleo-indians arrived in America, and hunting practices using stone tools went from strength to strength. This, coupled with increasing temperatures and melting glaciers, ultimately led to the demise of the mastodon. They were not alone, and other species including the horse-like, knuckle walking Chalicotherium, and the larger-than-life American lion were also lost in the same mass extinction.