Mammoths were bigger and heavier compared to their predecessors, the mastodons, and closer in appearance and constitution to elephants today. Mastodons had cusps on their molars, which mainly distinguished them from the mammoth as well as elephants who have ridged molars. Both species lived in the ice age, and briefly coexisted before the mastodons became extinct.
Mammoths were a species of the extinct genus Mammuthus, while mastodons were a species of the extinct genus Mammut. Both were muscular, four-legged mammals with a trunk, curved tusks and a tail. This video on the exhibits of the Field Museum throws more light on the differences between these two giants of the ice age:
Mammoths were heavier, weighing between 5.4 to 13 tons, with an adult height between 2.5 to four meters at the shoulder.
Mastodons weighed between 5 to 8 tons and grew up to about 2.3 to 2.8 meters at the shoulder.
Mammoths had sparse to woolly fur and a short tail, unlike the long, brown, shaggy fur of the long and hairy-tailed mastodons. At five to eight tons, and only 2.3 to 2.8 meters at the shoulder, mastodons weighed less and were shorter.
The mammoth had a high, peaked head and large ears. Mastodons on the other hand had a low, long skull with small ears.
Another significant distinguishing feature between the mammoth and the mastodon was their teeth. Mammoths had ridged molars that allowed them to cut through vegetation, similar to modern-day elephants. Also similar to the modern-day elephant, mammoths had developed six sets of enamel plates as teeth in their lifetime. The animals died of starvation when these were worn off.
Mastodons had cone-shaped cusps on their molars, similar to those of a pig. The name mastodon literally means "nipple tooth". This allowed them to crush twigs, leaves and branches. Mastodons only had one set of teeth, and there's no evidence that they wore down like mammoth teeth.
Period on Earth
The mammoth lived from the Pliocene epoch, about two million years ago, into the Holocene age. Most mammoths became extinct 10,000 years ago. Some smaller woolly mammoths, one of the species of mammoths, lived on an isolated island until 3750 BC.
The mastodon pre-dated the mammoth, although there was overlap. Mastodons lived from the late Miocine era, about 5.3 million years ago to the late Pleistocene era, which ended 10,000 years ago. Mastodons became extinct 10,000 years ago.
The precise reason why both species became extinct is unknown. Scientists have attributed it to climate change and over-hunting.
The Decline of Wolly Mammoths
Scientists found that DNA mutations accumulated in mammoth populations, degrading their genomes and eventually leading to their extinction. A BBC News story covering the research reported that
The last woolly mammoths to walk the Earth were so wracked with genetic disease that they lost their sense of smell, shunned company, and had a strange shiny coat. Scientists think the genetic mutations may have given the last woolly mammoths "silky, shiny satin fur". Mutations may have also led to a loss of olfactory receptors, responsible for the sense of smell, as well as substances in urine involved in social status and attracting a mate.
Mammoths were were herbivore grazers native to Africa, Europe, Asia and North America. Their habitat was the mammoth steppe, a periglacial landscape with rich herb and grass vegetation. They grazed on leaves, shrubs, grasses and herbs.
Mastodons were native to Africa, Europe and Asia, and later migrated to the Americas. Forest dwellers feeding on sylvan vegetation, mastodons were herbivores, both grazers and browsers. In addition to shrubs and grasses, they also grazed trees, mosses and twigs.
Mammoths lived 60 to 80 years, depending on their teeth. Mastodons lived for approximately 60 years.
Both the mammoth and the mastodon had a social structure similar to each other and to that of modern-day elephants. The females lived in herds with the young. These herds were headed by a matriarch. Bulls lived solitary lives or in loose groups with other bulls.
The mammoth and the mastodon diverge in classification at the family level. The mammoth belongs to the Elephantidae family and Mammuthus genus. The mastodon belongs to the Mammutidae family and Mammut genus.
There were several species of mammoth:
- M. primigenius: the woolly mammoth, from late Pleistocene Europe and North America, 2.7 meters tall.
- M. planifrons: the flat-browed mammoth, from Pleistocene India.
- M. meridionalis: the southern mammoth, from early Pleistocene Europe - one of the first mammoths, 4.5 meters tall.
- M. imperator: the imperial mammoth, from early Pleistocene North America, about 2,000,000 years ago, 4 m tall with tusks just as long.
- M. jeffersoni: the mammoth, from Eurasia.
- M. columbi: the Columbian mammoth, from late Pleistocene North America, 3.7 meters tall with twisted tusks.
- M. trogontherii: the steppe mammoth, from middle Pleistocene central Europe, 4.5 meters tall with tusks 5.2-meter-long tusks.
Species of mastodon were:
- M. matthewi: found in the Snake Creek Formation of Nebraska, dating from the late Hemphillian.
- M. raki: differs from M. americanum in having a relatively longer and narrower third molar.
- M. cosoensis: Found in the Coso Formation of California, dating from the late Pliocene.
- M. americanum: The American mastodon, the most known and the last species of Mammut, resembled a woolly mammoth in appearance, with a thick coat of shaggy hair.
- Wikipedia: Mammoth
- Mammoth Information - HowStuffWorks
- Woolly Mammoth Information - TheBigZoo
- All About Mammoths - EnchantedLearning.com
- Mastodons - EnchantedLearning.com
- Wikipedia: Mastodon
- Mastodon and Mammoth - Cochise College
- The Lonely, Thirsty, Final Days of the Doomed Alaskan Mammoths - The Atlantic
- Excess of genomic defects in a woolly mammoth on Wrangel island
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