American Mastodon

Mammut americanum, the American mastodon, was a large prehistoric herbivore that resembled a modern-day elephant. It emerged onto the plains of North America 3.75 million years ago, witnessed the arrival of man to the Americas about 13,000 years ago, had a bad feeling about it, witnessed man hunting them obsessively,* and went extinct about 10,000 years ago.

Sorry about that, fella. We were cold and hungry.

Probably not how it wanted to be remembered.

Long, tedious, boring – but wonderfully interesting studies of mastodon bones suggest tuberculosis may also have played a role in their extinction. Experts believe the disease was rampant among Ice Age fauna. That must have been fun for the mastodon. The next time you have a cold and you’re sneezing and feeling sorry for yourself – just imagine if your nose were six feet long. Plus you have tuberculosis. Plus little hairy people are trying to spear you. And this is all 10,000 years before the advent of Airborne**, or even Kleenex for that matter.

Such was the life of Mammut americanum.

By the by, there was also a European version of the mastodon, Mammut borsoni. It’s name even sounds Italian. So it certainly dressed well, spoke like eight languages fluently and knew American history much better than its elephantine friends in America. (In other words, European Mastodon was the one sipping grappa and quoting the Federalist Papers while looking effortlessly stylish as American Mastodon nervously picked at the label on his Milwaukee’s Best. Though, as one alert reader pointed out, European Mastodon hadn’t showered in over a week and was making all the lady mastodons uncomfortable with blatant over-staring).

Anyway, let’s keep this simple and stick to the American mastodon.

The overwhelming majority of stuff you hear about American mastodons could not be any more boring. A typical museum plaque might go on, forever and ever, about dentition, probable diet and vestigial tusks to the point where kids and teachers alike begin to wonder if the field trip was such a hot idea after all.

Never thought she’d look forward to diagramming sentences.

Strangely, paleontologists and professional museum plaque writers always miss the best fact about mastodons. Sure, they’ll tell you that the mastodon was a member of the Pleistocene megafauna – a group of now-extinct animals that lived during the Pleistocene epoch. Thanks for that little tidbit of conversation. Yet what’s never mentioned – and this a profoundly important animal fact is that among this group of Pleistocene megafauna there existed a disproportionately large number of animals that had awesome names for metal bands. Mastodon included.

The Pleistocene megafauna is stunning in this regard. No other animal group in the history of planet Earth comes close to touching it. Even ‘Pleistocene megafauna’ is itself a pretty decent metal band name. And it just gets better.

Here are some actual animals from the Pleistocene epoch that would also make awesome metal band names:





Marsupial Lion

Dire Wolf

(n.b. Mastodon and Dire Wolf are currently being used by awesome metal bands. Both available on iTunes.)

Mastodon, live in Atlanta. Hells yeah.

The only issue remaining for science is the burning question of who would open for whom. Perhaps Toxodon (a hippo-like beast) would have primed the crowd for Megalania (a giant monitor lizard). Whatever the case, Mastodon was definitely a headliner. We don’t need no fancy paleontologists to tell us that.

As we contemplate the final mark, it should go without saying that the mastodon and his Pleistocene megafauna pals have contributed a great deal to mankind, even after we speared them into the marbled hallways of natural history.

Rock on, Mammut americanum.


* How much did our ancestors get a kick out of going mastodon hunting? Well, in September 2007, scientist Mark Holleysaid, who works as an underwater archeologist (also a good euphemism for a plumber) found a rock in Lake Michigan with what looked to be prehistoric carvings of a mastodon with a spear in its side. Well, it’s either that or it’s a smudge. Time will tell.

**A cold medicine developed by a second-grade school teacher. Uh, oh-kay. Any organic chemists care to weigh in on this ‘formula’? Everyone else – go google ‘placebo effect.’

11 responses to “American Mastodon

  1. Yeah well, the european mastondon hadn’t showered in over a week and was makin all the lady mastondons uncomfortable with blatant over-staring.

  2. I love diagramming sentences…. When I was told that was going to be part of the curriculum in my American grammar course, I danced with glee.

  3. I bet the European mastadons never wasted too much time debating intelligent design, though.

  4. BTW – don’t forget that the Eurodon was SMOKING the whole time.

    And, whenever they went skiing, the Euros were stomping on each others’ skis rather than waiting politely in line. And there’s not much that can hurt a pair of Rossis worse than being mastatomped.

    Of course, whenever those Mastodeutsch tried to take over the continent, you can bet that the rest of the Eurofauna were glad to see ol’ Mammut americanum show up!

  5. Oh – and Dire Wolf was the name of a Grateful Dead song long before it got metaled.

  6. Actually you are confused about the difference between the mastodon and the mammoth. The mastodon did not even live alongside the mammoth. In fact, the mastodon lived millions of years before the mammoth in the Miocene-Pliocene epochs. The mastodon gets its name from the type of teeth it had–suitable for browsing on leaves and tough plant matter. As the climate cooled, grasslands began devoloping and mammals evolved into the Pleistocene. The teeth of many herbivorous animals, including mammoths, became “hipsilophodontid”–suitable for grazing. Our paleo professor told us to remember mastodons had pointed teeth by looking at the shape of the lead guitar in the metal group “Mastodon”. Isn’t that cool? A+

  7. paleonerd you’re a loser.

    • Actually, Megan, I am not. I’m a 21 year old college girl who got a full ride scholarship for art. But I just so happen to love paleontology. And I also just so happen to hate bad science and naive critics. I’m glad for your sake that we may never meet because you will surely find your incompetence infuriating.

  8. and I quote Richard Cowen’s “History of Life” textbook (2005)

    • Actually, you’re half right. The longest snake ever caught was a reticulated python. The snake with the largest mass ever caught, however, was an anaconda. We appreciate your concern, but we’re going to hang in there with our original statement that the anaconda is the largest snake. Saying that something is ‘larger’ simply because it’s longer is a bit like saying that a set of jumper cables is larger than a backyard grill.

  9. I’m not sure where you are getting your info, but great topic.
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