Friday, January 16, 2009

Ask the Experts: What are the differences between mammoths and mastodons?

Mammoths and mastodons both fall within the taxonomic order Proboscidea, but they are classified in different families. Mastodons belong to the family Mammutidae, an extinct lineage, while mammoths belong to the same family as present day elephants, Elephantidae.

The key diagnostic difference between the two is the shape of their teeth, which helped them to eat different types of foliage. Mastodon means “breast tooth”, which refers to the pointed cusps on their molars that allowed them to crush leaves and other soft plant material. A forest ecosystem offered plenty of forage for the mastodons, such as Ponderosa pines, leafy trees such as oaks, Manzanita and other scrub plants. While mastodons had a leafy diet, mammoths primarily ate grass. The flat enamel plates of the mammoth’s molar were perfect for grinding up hard-to-digest grasses. Both dined well in the Domenigoni and Diamond valleys, with a rich buffet of grasslands, forests, and wetlands.

Another difference was that compared to mastodons, mammoths were taller and had longer, more slender limb bones, and higher, more rounded foreheads.


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