The name ‘mastodon’ stems from the Greek; ‘masto’ for ‘breast’ and ‘odon’ for ‘tooth’ - the name refers to the distinctive shape of the teeth, they are pointed much like our own. Mastodon teeth are recognisably ‘tooth-shaped’. Unlike the separated and pointed nature of mastodon teeth, mammoths have smooth rigged teeth – akin to the tread of a shoe.
Mastodon tooth Mammoth tooth
It is not surprising that the teeth are frequently mistaken; it wasn’t until recently that a difference was noted. The first mastodon tooth was found in 1705, it was sent to England entitled ‘tooth of a Giant’. Its identity long went unknown, the species was termed ‘Incognitum’ owing to the mystery surrounding what sort of animal the tooth belonged to. Then, in 1722, the term ‘mammoth’ was first used when John Bell discovered tusks relating to a mysterious creature in Siberia. It was initially thought that the ‘Incognitum’ tooth was a mammoth’s, but it was yet to be realised that North America was home to two different proboscideans* (mammoths and mastodons).
How was the difference between a mastodon and a mammoth discovered?
Whilst wooly mammoths in Siberia were being unearthed, so too were mastodons and mammoths in North America – leading to the belief that all species found were mammoths. Anatomists began to distinguish a difference between the ‘Incognitum’ and mammoths by making direct comparisons – they found that they were two different species. The teeth of mammoths and modern elephants have a flatter, ridged shape. Whereas, the ‘Incognitum’ teeth were in rows of conical cusps. Thus, ‘Incognitum’ gained its own name – mastodon – after the shape of its teeth which had helped finally distinguish it from mammoths.
How do you tell the difference between a mastodon and mammoth?
Mastodons had this more rounded tooth shape as an adaption for crushing twigs, leaves, and stems. Mammoths, having teeth similar to an elephant, are therefore thought to have a diet of mainly grass – the ridges acting as abrasives to grind the grass. Therefore, it had been determined that of the two species found in prehistoric America, it was mammoths that would have roamed the open grasslands of Western America while mastodons lived in the forested East by the Mississippi River.
Misidentification is ironic (and yet not unreasonable), as it is the dental features which are most commonly used to categorise and define proboscideans*. In the absence of teeth, distinguishing between the two is very difficult; Stanely J.Olsen in 1972 produced a document to help Palaeontologists in differentiating between mastodons and mammoths without dental remains. All-in-all, mammoths are far more similar to modern day elephants than they are to their ancient mastodon counterparts.
(Mammoth teeth are also very similar to elephant teeth - how do you tell the difference between a mammoth and an elephant? That's when dating becomes important!).
For more differences between mastodons and mammoths, see the references list below. Alternatively, a quick Google will do the job.
*proboscideans (the order in which matsodons and mammoths belong, along with Elephants)
Hodgson, J. A., Allmon, W. D., Nester, P. L., Sherpa, J. M., & Chiment, J. J. (2008). Comparative osteology of late Pleistocene mammoth and mastodon remains from the Watkins Glen site, Chemung County, New York. Mastodon Paleobiology, Taphonomy, and Paleoenvironment in the Late Pleistocene of New York State: Studies on the Hyde Park, Chemung, and North Java Sites. Palaeontographica Americana, 61, 301-367.