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:
(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.’