Word Wednesday: Mammoth v. Mastodon

Pleistocene mammalian megafauna is one of my favorite paleontological topics. Of the wide-range of Ice Age mammals, mammoths are probably the most popular example. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize that mammoths and mastodons are different animals, or even that there are species of mammoth other than the woolly.


Mammoth comes from the Russian word ‘мамонт’, which comes from a local word for earth. Mammoths were found buried in the ground, so it was once thought that they burrowed like moles. It wasn’t until 1802 that the word took on its current colloquial meaning of huge or gigantic.


Mastodon breaks down into masto and -odonMasto comes from the Greek word mastos‘ which means breast and odon comes from the Greek word ‘odonys‘ which means tooth. The mastodon was named for the large cusps on its teeth.

Comparison of mammoth and mastodon teeth
Comparison of mammoth and mastodon teeth at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History

Mammoths were grazers, meaning that they ate primarily grass, and their large, flat teeth were used to wear down the delicate grasses. They lived in the Great Plains and other ‘mammoth steppes’. Mastodons, on the other hand, were browsers, meaning that they ate leaves, shoots and fruits. The large cusps on their teeth were used to wear down the tough vegetation. They tended to live in forests.

Elephant Phylogenetic Tree
American mastodon

Many people think that woolly mammoths are the only type of mammoths. On the contrary, there are as many as 10 different recognized species. In North America, the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenus) lived primarily in the northern regions, while the Columbian mammoth (M. columbi) spread south and eventually split off on to the Channel Islands of California (M. exilis). Sometimes woolly and Columbian mammoths coexisted and might have interbreed and hybridized.

The Columbian mammoth was not named for the country of Columbia, but for Christopher Columbus because it was found in the New World. The woolly mammoth was about the same size as a modern Asian elephant and was covered in thick hair to protect it from the freezing temperatures of the last Ice Age. Columbian mammoths were even larger than African elephants and had relatively little body hair. There are between 2 and 4 species of mastodon and the most common was the American mastodon.

Columbian mammoth

The woolly mammoth is the state fossil of Alaska, the Columbian mammoth is the state fossil of Washington, Nebraska doesn’t distinguish between different species of mammoth for its state fossil, and the mastodon is the state fossil of Michigan. If you want to learn more about mammoths and mastodons, the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California, The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota, and the Trailside Museum in Crawford, Nebraska have impressive collections of mammoths, and the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History has a mastodon display that explains the differences between mammoths and mastodons. One last fun fact: the myth of the cyclops was developed by the Greeks to explain the origin of mammoth skulls!


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