Of mammoths and mastodons
MacBride Museum/Yukon News
During the Klondike Gold Rush, eager prospectors churned though tons of soil in search of those elusive yellow nuggets.
Few prospectors hit the mineral mother lode, but some unearthed a different kind of treasure altogether—the bones of ancient giants.
Woolly mammoth remains were the most common, but sometimes explorers would come across the bones from American mastodon.
In 1885, Frederick Schwatka wrote about finding a mammoth bone found on a beach near his camp along the Yukon River.
“For many years the scattered bones of this extinct animal have been found along the Yukon, showing that this region was once its home,” wrote Schwatka.
“When at Fort Yukon an Indian brought the tooth of a mastodon to a member of my party, and receiving something for it, probably more than expected, told the white man that the entire skeleton was protruding from the banks of one of the islands ... a complete skeleton in situ is a rarity.”
Those ancient giants, the mammoth and American mastodon, along with many other megafaunal species such as the short-faced bear and the giant beaver, roamed around part of the Yukon more than 11,000 years ago.
The two names, mammoth and mastodon, are often used interchangeably and incorrectly.
Both were similarly shaped to today’s elephants; both were vegetarians and both were covered with reddish brown hair.
Also, after spending thousands of years buried underground, their fossilized bones look strikingly similar to the untrained eye.
But there a few key differences between the American mastodon and the woolly mammoth.
First, though similar animals, the woolly mammoth and American mastodon lived during different periods.
The mastodon was a glacial animal, which means it lived during the glaciations, while the mammoth was an interglacial animal, which means it lived between glaciations.
Second was the shape of their tusks. Mammoth tusks had a strong curve on the end allowing the creatures to sweep away snow to reach the delicious grasses beneath.
Meanwhile mastodons had straighter tusks that stuck out from the head.
Third was the shape of their teeth.
Throughout their lifetimes the mammoth and the mastodon had about the same number of teeth, but the mastodon had more teeth in its mouth at any one time.
From the size and shape of the mastodon teeth scientists believe that the animal was a browser, meaning it ate mostly leaves and twigs.
While mastodons had a leafy diet, mammoths primarily ate grass. The flat plates of the mammoth’s molar were perfect for grinding up hard-to-digest grasses.
An American mastodon is considered a relative of the prehistoric mammoths. Though similar the two types of animals are classified into different families.
Mastodons were part the Mammutidae, an extinct lineage, while mammoths belong to the same family as present day elephants, Elephantidae.
Mastodons originated about 35 million years ago in North Africa. About 20 million years ago they spread to Eurasia; they then came to North America across the Bering land bridge about 15 million years ago. They were followed by the woolly mammoth.
It’s believed that woolly mammoths were the most recent mammoths to roam the earth. Because of the rapidly changing environment and human hunters, most became extinct about 11,000 years ago.
Recently, however some mammoth remains, such as the dwarf mammoths found on Wrangel Island, have been radiocarbon dated to just 3,000 years ago.