STL Science Center

STL Science Center

07 October 2011

Bigger, Maybe not Meaner

What's bigger but not necessarily meaner than Smilodon? Any one of the various kinds of mammoth. Mammoths are not limited to the ever famous Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) but is actually a genus of prehistoric Elephantids (of the order Proboscidea- it's just fun to say) comprising over ten species of mammoth from across the world. There are European, Asian, African, Wooly, and dwarf mammoths, mammoths named after rivers and the institutions or people that found them initially, and, of course, some of these names are actually synonyms of other names. Mammoths were fairly large animals, but as you can see, not all of them were even as large as a modern African Elephant. Also, it's important to note, a mammoth is not the same thing as a mastodon.

While they may appear similar, mastodons and mammoths are radically different animals. While both stand at about the height of an Asian Elephant, much shorter than an African Elephant, the tusks of the two proboscids immediately show that they are different animals. The tusks of mastodons are shorter and less curved than those of mammoths. The tusk of a mammoth had the capability of growing as long as the mammoth was tall as well. Additionally, while we're at the mouth, mastodons had teeth suited to foraging amongst the trees and eating twigs as well as leaves whereas the teeth of a mammoth were built to grind down grass and other low vegetation. Also, mammoths replaced their teeth up to six times during life. After this last replacement, if the teeth were ground down too much to be of use the mammoth could slowly begin to starve to death rather than die of old age.

Due to popular sentiment one would believe that the mammoth's hair would also immediately show differences between the two, however, not all mammoths were of the "woolly" persuasion. A mammoth did have more hair, but not always the shaggy coat. One thing it certainly had that a mastodon did not was an extremely high brow ridge and parietal peaking of its skull; basically giving it a sharpened looking apex of its skull. Both animals had shorter trunks than the elephants we know today as well. Overall mammoths were almost one and a half times as tall as mastodons, including the large forehead, and some could weigh two to four tonnes more.

The last bit of difference is that mammoths are a younger genus that most likely evolved either directly from mastodons or directly from the same ancestral group which was busy splitting into African and Asian Elephants at the same time. Mastodons appear from 33.9mya to 11,000 years ago whereas mammoths appear from 4.8mya to 4,500 years ago. Thinking about that time range puts us into the first organized civilizations in Southwestern Asia so it is quite possible that some of the more advanced civilizations of humanity may have run into mammoths before their extinction.

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