American mastodons were some of the largest mammals in North America when they lived from five million years ago to 11,000 years ago. Fossils of the American mastodon have been found from Alaska to Mexico.
The first recorded discovery of a mastodon fossil, a tooth, was in 1705 in New York. The discovery was made by a Dutch farmer who named the mastodon “incognitum”, unknown. Another discovery wasn’t made until 1739, when French soldiers in Kentucky excavated some fossils and removed them to Paris for study. At the end of the 18th century, the consensus was that the mastodon fossils either were African elephant bones that had been transported somehow to North America, or that they were the same as the mammoth fossils being found in Asia. George Cuvier in 1817 finally determined that the differences in the teeth between mastodons and mammoths meant that mastodons were a separate species.
The last common ancestor that American mastodons shared with mammoths are modern elephants that lived approximately 20 million years ago. Despite this, mastodons lived a lifestyle that was very similar to that of living elephants. Herds were made up of females and their babies, and males were solitary or formed small bachelor herds. American mastodons lived in the forest. Their teeth were well adapted to a diet of branches and leaves.
Both males and females had tusks. The males’ tusks were larger than the females’ and were used for sparring to gain the attention of a female. Like trees, mastodon tusks show growth rings. Fully grown mastodons were anywhere from seven to nine feet tall and usually 15 feet long. This makes them shorter than many mammoths and modern elephants, but longer.
Like many other large mammals, the American mastodon went extinct during the time of first contact with humans and climate change. Their extinction is consistent with the pattern of overhunting by humans, but plant fossils also show that the climate was changing quickly at the time of the mastodons’ death. It is possible that climate change was the primary cause of their extinction but humans put an added stress on the species that they couldn’t survive.
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