Imagine you’re walking through the forest when all of a sudden you trip and fall. Upon righting yourself, you see that you stumbled over a strange-looking log. Upon further inspection, you realize it’s not a log at all, but rather a large tusk. It looks like an elephant’s tusk, but it’s much too big. Could this tusk belong to an extinct mastodon or mammoth? Possibly, but how can you tell the difference between a mastodon vs mammoth to determine which is which?
While unlikely, this scenario represents a common conundrum for archaeologists who study these extinct massive mammals. Although they looked similar in appearance, mastodons and mammoths are not closely related to one another. Mastodons emerged around 25 to 27 million years ago, while mammoths only emerged around 5 million years ago. In terms of living relatives, mammoths share more in common with Asian elephants than African elephants. Meanwhile, mastodons diverged from modern elephants and mammoths several million years ago. Given these differences, it’s important to take time to compare these two giants. In this article, we’ll discuss 7 key differences between a mastodon vs mammoth, and also answer a few frequently asked questions about the two species.
Comparing Mastodons and Mammoths
The term mastodon can describe any one of a number of different species that lived throughout Europe, Asia, and North America. That said, of the different species, M. americanum – or the American mastodon – is likely the most well-known and studied. However, we’ll take a moment to briefly introduce some of the other mastodons that used to roam the Earth.
This species bears a striking resemblance to the American mastodon, and may not represent a unique species. The only known remains came from the Snake Creek Formation in Nebraska, and date back to the late Hemphillian period. That said, there may exist other, similar remains in China.
Remains of this species date from the Pleistocene era and originated from sites in California and Idaho. It is the most well-studied species aside from the American mastodon. They differed in several ways, as M. pacificus possessed narrower molars, fewer sacral vertebrae, thicker femurs, and lacked mandibular tusks.
The remains of this species were found in the Palomas Formation in New Mexico and date back to the early-middle Pliocene era. Their molars grew longer and narrower than those of the American mastodon. That said, its taxonomy is disputed, and it may not represent a distinct species.
Like the mastodon, the term mammoth can refer to nearly 10 different species of mammoth. The most well-known is the wooly mammoth because it occurred later than other species and is the best studied. However, we’ll take a moment to mention a few other common mammoth species that may feature in our comparison.
The Columbian mammoth ranged throughout North America during the Pleistocene epoch. Along with the wooly mammoth, it represents one of the last living mammoths. It likely came about due to hybridization between wooly mammoths and steppe mammoths. The pygmy mammoths from the Channel Islands likely evolved from Columbian mammoths.
The steppe mammoth lived throughout northern Eurasian during the early-middle Pleistocene era, roughly 1.8 million to 200,000 years ago. It likely served as the ancestor to the wooly mammoths and the Columbian mammoths that emerged during the later Pleistocene.
|Distribution and Habitat||Worldwide|
Primarily North and Central America
Primarily northern regions of North America, Europe, and Asia
|Size||Shorter and thicker|
Typically 7 feet, 7 inches to 9 feet, 5 inches tall
8.6 to 12 tons
|Taller and leaner|
8.9 to 15 feet tall
6.6 tons to 11 tons
Knob on top of skull
|Hair||Long, brown shaggy fur|
Up to 35 inches long
|Sparse to wooly fur|
Molars shaped into pointed cones
Evolved to help them browse woodland vegetation
Evolved to help them graze for grass
|Tusks||Shorter, straighter tusks|
Up to 8 feet long
|Longer, more curved tusks|
Up to 16 feet long
|Diet||Twigs, leaves, and other arboreal vegetation||Tough grasses|
The 7 Key Differences Between Mastodons and Mammoths
Mastodons and Mammoths: Distribution and Habitat
Both mastodons and mammoths ranged throughout the world and only did not exist in Australia or Antarctica. That said, several differences exist in the distribution and preferred habitat of a mastodon vs mammoth. According to found remains, mastodons predominantly lived in North and Central America. They preferred to live in cold spruce woodland areas that contained the majority of their food sources. Meanwhile, mammoths lived primarily in northern regions of North America, Europe, and Asia. They typically roamed through semi-arid tundra regions like those found in Siberia and northern Canada, although some populations also lived throughout East and South Africa.
Mastodons and Mammoths: Size
One of the most notable differences between a mastodon vs mammoth is their respective sizes. In general, mastodons appeared shorter and stockier than mammoths. Typically, they stood between 7 feet, 7 inches to 9 feet, 4 inches tall at the shoulder. However, the tallest official specimen measured 10.7 feet tall. Meanwhile, mammoths typically measured between 8.9 to 15 feet tall, although some dwarf varieties measured much smaller. Furthermore, while mastodons and mammoths weighed about the same, mastodons weighed more on average than smaller mammoth species. In general, mastodons weighed between 8.6 to 12 tons. On the other hand, while the largest mammoths weighed around the same size as mastodons, smaller mammoths weighed significantly less. For reference, mammoths usually weighed between 6.6 to 11 tons.
Mastodons and Mammoths: Body
Several small but significant features can help you identify the difference between a mastodon vs mammoth. Usually, the legs of mastodons measured much shorter than mammoth legs, which explains the difference in their heights. That said, the bodies of mastodons typically grew longer than mammoth bodies. Given these differences, mastodons appeared much stockier and more muscled than taller, lankier mammoths. In addition, the head of a mastodon looks quite flat compared to the head of a mammoth. Mammoth heads feature a bulbous knob on top made from a protrusion of bone.
Mastodons and Mammoths: Hair
Both mastodons and mammoths grew extremely long hair over their bodies. At its longest, the hair of these large pachyderms could reach up to 3 feet long. That said, the texture and distribution of their hair looked quite different. Mastodon hair grew more uniformly along the body and possessed a shaggy texture. While colors varied, mastodon hair typically looked brown, although it may vary according to their habitat. On the other hand, mammoth hair was more wooly, which is where the wooly mammoth gets its name. In addition, some mammoth species grew hair more sparsely, particularly ones that lived in warmer climates. Finally, while mastodon tails grew quite long and shaggy, mammoth tails typically grew less long and hairy.
Mastodons and Mammoths: Teeth
One of the primary ways archaeologists use to distinguish between a mastodon vs mammoth involves studying their teeth. Mastodon teeth look dissimilar to mammoth teeth because they adapted to eat different foods. As browsers, mastodons evolved teeth capable of breaking down woody vegetation. Their molars grew into pointed cones, as opposed to the flat molars of a mammoth. In fact, the name mastodon translates to “nipple tooth” or “breast tooth” in Greek, as their teeth look similar to nipples. Meanwhile, mammoth teeth look more similar to the teeth of modern grazing mammals, as they evolved to chew on tough grasses.
Mastodons and Mammoths: Tusks
Another obvious difference between a mastodon vs mammoth concerns the size and shape of their tusks. Upon inspection, it’s clear that mastodon tusks grow much straighter and shorter than mammoth tusks. Mammoth tusks typically develop a significant curve, and may even begin to curve inward toward the face. Meanwhile, mastodon tusks tend to grow straight out and undergo only a slight curve at most. In addition, while mastodon tusks can grow up to 8 feet long, mammoth tusks can grow much larger, measuring up to 16 feet at their longest. Lastly, some mastodons sport a small, thin chin tusk, whiles other have no chin tusk.
Mastodons and Mammoths: Diet
As previously mentioned, mastodons and mammoths adapted to different climates and habitats. This adaptation led to significant differences in their diets. Overall, mastodons lived as browsers and subsisted on twigs, leaves, and other arboreal vegetation common in spruce forests. On the other hand, mammoths lived as grazers and consumed tough grasses and sedges. When they could access plentiful food supplies, either of these massive creatures could consume up to 400 pounds of vegetation in a single day.
Frequently Asked Questions Concerning Mastodons and Mammoths
When did mastodons go extinct?
Mastodons went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene era, around 10,000 to 11,000 years ago.
When did mammoths go extinct?
Mammoths survived slightly longer than mastodons. According to fossil records, the last mammoths likely died out around 4,000 years ago, although the majority died out around 10,000 years ago.
Did mastodons and mammoths live in herds?
Like modern elephants, mastodons and mammoths likely lived in herds. However, males may have been solitary and likely moved between groups.