Extinction sucks. Only yesterday, in geologic terms, did mastodons, sabercats, giant ground sloths, and their charismatic Ice Age contemporaries roam North America. Humans even encountered these beasts, but I was born about 10,000 years too late to see the Pleistocene menagerie. I just missed some of the most wonderful mammals ever to tread the continent.
When 18th-century scientists began to scrutinize the bones of these Pleistocene megamammals, though, extinction had not yet been universally recognized as a reality. By the hand of God or the balance of nature, every creature was believed to have a perpetual role to play on the Earth’s stage. Remove even one species from that order, and the whole theater might crumble with it. No surprise, then, that naturalists such as Louis Daubenton and Thomas Jefferson thought that the weird bones coming out of Pleistocene deposits, such as Big Bone Lick in what is now northern Kentucky, represented as-yet-unknown animals that were still living in the American interior. Among these mysterious animals, naturalists believed, was a carnivorous mastodon.
To doctors, anatomists, and early paleontologists, the molars of the mastodon looked like spikes perfectly suited for piercing flesh. Bringing the tooth and the rest of the animal into focus took a circuitous route, though. Tusks discovered in North America indicated the presence of an elephant, but the pointed, lumpy molars found in association with the tusks didn’t match the flat grinders of modern elephants. (The bumpy nature of the molars is what would later lead the brilliant French naturalist Georges Cuvier to name the animal “mastodon” on account of the breast-like tooth protrusions.) In 1767, for example, British anatomist John Hunter proposed that the tusks belonged to an elephant while the molars represented a second, carnivorous animal. His brother, William, disagreed on dividing tooth from tusk, but nevertheless maintained that the “American Incognitum,” as it was then known, was a carnivore.
The official report of John Hunter’s presentation concluded that, much as naturalists might want to see one, our species should be grateful that the mastodon was “probably extinct.” Some of Hunter’s peers disagreed – the idea that an entire species could disappear wouldn’t squeeze into the scientific mainstream until after 1796, when Cuvier demonstrated that the mammoth and mastodon were distinct from today’s elephants and there was no place left on the planet for such large animals to hide. So, for a time, naturalists painted poetic and nightmarish portraits of rapacious mastodons roaming the land west of the Mississippi.
My favorite imaginary vision comes from American naturalist George Turner. Turner delivered his talk after Cuvier underscored the fact of extinction, and talks about the mastodon in the past tense, but I still can’t get over his ridiculously frightening vision of the mastodon he presented to a 1799 meeting of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia:
May it not be inferred, too, that as the largest and swiftest quadrupeds were appointed for his food, he necessarily was endowed with great strength and activity? That, as the immense volume of the creature would unfit him for coursing after his prey through thickets and woods, Nature had furnished him with the power of taking it by a mighty leap? – That this power of springing a great distance was requisite to the more effectual concealment of his bulky volume while lying in wait for his prey?
Mercifully for the people of the west, native and immigrant, such a monster never existed. As Benjamin Franklin pointed out at the time the Hunter brothers were entertaining a meat-eating incognitum, the distinctive teeth of the mastodon “might be as useful to grind the small branches of Trees, as to chaw Flesh.” Eventually, other naturalists came around to this view, which has been confirmed over and over again through gut contents, dung, and microscopic scratches on teeth. Mammut americanum, as we call the beast today, was a browser that ground down leaves, bark, and twigs, while the flat-toothed mammoths were grazers like their modern elephant cousins. Still, I can’t help but think of Turner’s sensational hypothesis when I go camping in the western backcountry. The sound of a twig snapping in the forest night could be almost anything, but, sometimes, my imagination gives it the form of a crouched mastodon, tensed and ready to pounce the moment I leave my tent.
[Parts of this post were drawn from the chapter “Behemoth” in my book Written in Stone.]
While not a carnivorous mastodon, the awful 2006 monster movie Mammoth featured a flesh-eating, alien-controlled mammoth. Watch at the peril of your own brain cells: