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’. With this information, it begins to seem clear that the object on display is not a mastodon tooth, but in fact that of a mammoth. Unlike the separated and pointed nature of mastodon teeth, mammoths have smooth rigged teeth – akin to the tread of a shoe.
It is not surprising that the tooth was mistaken for a mastodon’s; it wasn’t until recently that the 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). 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.
Mastodons had a 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.
The misidentification of the museum’s tooth is ironic (and yet not unreasonable), as it is the dental features which are most commonly used to categorise and define proboscideans (Proboscideans – the order in which mastodons and mammoths belong, along with Elephants). It’s only because it was the tooth of the prehistoric mammoth, and not a bone, that the museum holds that a volunteer was able to identify the misnaming. 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. (Perhaps it’s just an elephant tooth after all – but we think it’s a mammoth tooth).