The mastodon and woolly mammoth were members of a group of mammals of the order Proboscidea, a taxonomic order that includes elephants and their extinct ancestors. However, these two species of trunked mammals were only distantly related to each other and were significantly different with respect to their appearance, where they lived and what they ate.
The scientific name for the woolly mammoth is Mammuthus primigenius. Mammuthus is an extinct genus of the family Elephantidae, which includes two genera of modern, living elephants: Loxodonta, or the African elephants, and Elephas, the Asiatic elephants. The mastodon, whose scientific name is Mammut americanum, was a member of the family Mammutidae. All members of the family Mammutidae are now extinct.
Differences in Place and Time
Mastodons inhabited North and Central America, beginning in the Miocene Epoch, about 23 million years ago. They became extinct roughly 10,000 years ago. The woolly mammoth appeared in northern Eurasia and North America during the most recent ice age, about 2.5 million years ago. They became extinct in Europe and Siberia around 8,000 B.C., but lingered in isolated pockets of the Arctic Circle until about 1,700 B.C.
Differences in Habitat and Diet
Mastodons preferred a diet derived from trees: cones, twigs, pine needles and leaves. Consequently, they favored woodland or forest habitats in North and Central America. Woolly mammoths, on the other hand, spread across the northern steppe-tundras located throughout Europe, Asia and North America during the Ice Age. The steppe-tundra was a cold, grassy habitat with few trees. Not surprisingly, woolly mammoths were grazers, with a diet of mainly grass, sedge and shrubs.
Mastodon and Mammoth Size
Adult mastodons were close to the size of modern Asian elephants, with longer bodies and shorter legs. Adult male mastodons could grow as tall as 9.8 feet (3 meters) from shoulder to toe, with a weight of about 6 tons (5,500 kg). In comparison, the woolly mammoth was similar in size to modern African elephants. Adult males could reach up to 11 feet (3.5 meters) at the shoulder, and weigh as much as 6.6 tons (5,988 kg).
Skulls, Tusks and Teeth
Mastodon skulls were low and long, carried horizontally, with moderately curved tusks. The molar teeth of the mastodon were shaped with a deep valley set between pairs of blunt, cone-shaped cusps. The paired cones on this unusually shaped tooth were well-adapted to crushing pine cones and twigs. In contrast, the woolly mammoth had a more vertically positioned head with a high, peaked forehead. Mammoth tusks were longer than mastodon tusks and deeply bowed. The top surface of the woolly mammoth molar tooth had flat, washboard-like ridges, similar to the molars of modern elephants.
- University of California: About Mammoths
- PLOS Biology: Genomic DNA Sequences From Mastodon and Woolly Mammoth Reveal Deep Speciation of Forest and Savanna Elephants
- San Diego Natural History Museum: Mastodon
- EOL Species: Mammuthus Primigenius
- EOL Species: Mammut Americanum
- Discovery News: How Did the Mammoths Go Extinct?
- Photo Credit Aunt_Spray/iStock/Getty Images
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