Vertebrate Paleontology

Is there a difference between a mammoth and a mastodon?
Answered by Animal Planet
  • Animal Planet

    Animal Planet

  1. Both the mammoth and the mastodon are extinct animals that resembled elephants. They wandered the Earth anywhere from 1.8 million years ago until about 10,000 years ago, when the ice age cooled temperatures. The disappearance of these two beasts -- who so closely resemble an animal we see in our zoos and on open plains today -- has brought home the reality of animal extinction.

    Mastodons were native to North America, but mammoths likely migrated here across the Bering Land Bridge [source: Field Museum]. Both mammoths and mastodons had long, curved tusks in their upper jaws and coats of shaggy hair. But the two had distinctions, too. The mastodon's molars had knobby crowns but the mammoth's were made of a series of corrugated plates. Mammoths were taller -- about 14 feet (4.25 meters) -- and their heads were more domed than mastodons' heads were. Mastodons were shorter but stockier.

    Mammoths also provided the first evidence of giant creatures on Earth, A huge tooth was discovered in the Hudson River Valley of New York in 1705 and the creature was dubbed "incognitum," or the unknown species. This discovery predated the first dinosaur finding by more than a century [source: Smithsonian]. When similar giant teeth showed up in South Carolina, local slaves pointed out their similarity to those of African elephants. In 1806, a French anatomist named the incognitum mastodon from the Greek words for beast and tooth.

    Although they went extinct more than 10,000 years ago, wooly mammoths might one day walk the Earth again. Frozen mammoth bodies contain preserved DNA, and DNA from closely related modern elephants could help scientists fill in the missing pieces. A living female elephant could host the resulting mammoth embryo. A team of Japanese researchers and a Russian mammoth expert recently determined how to extract the DNA from the frozen cells without damging it [source: Discovery News]. They hope to bring the ancient pachyderm back to life and study it, along with what happened to cause mammoth extinction. The project should take about five years.

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