We when we imagine mammoths and mastodons, we tend to see them as roaming elephant-like beasts that marched across the prehistoric continents in gigantic migrations. It turns out though that this may just be fiction, an image that we created and institutions like Hollywood perpetuated (remember when dinosaurs used to stick their tongues out like snakes in movies?)
Scientists have found that contrary to popular belief, these terrestrial giants were “home bodies.” They tended to remain local, even choosing preferred spots with the research suggesting that each species of mammoth and mastodon kept to separate areas based the types of food available.
How did scientists discern this? Teeth! Specifically the scientists studied specimens of molars from four mastodons and eight mammoths at southwestern Ohio and northwestern Kentucky. By drilling into a tooth’s surface and analyzing the stable carbon, oxygen and strontium isotopic signatures, a story about how these extinct animals lived their life can be found.
Carbon provides insight into an animal’s diet; oxygen relates to overall climatic conditions of an animal’s environment; and strontium indicates how much an animal may have traveled at the time its tooth was forming. “Strontium reflects the bedrock geology of a location,” Professor Crowley said. “So if a local animal grows its tooth and mineralizes it locally and dies locally, the strontium isotope ratio in its tooth will reflect the place where it lived and died.”
Their analysis revealed that mammoths ate more grasses and sedges than mastodons, who favored leaves from trees or shrubs. Strontium from nearly all of the animals matched local water samples, meaning they likely were less mobile and migratory than originally thought.
Meanwhile, differences in strontium and carbon between mammoths and mastodons suggest they didn’t inhabit the same localities. Rather than overlapping, mammoths preferred to be closer to the retreating ice sheet where grasses were more abundant. On the other hand, mastodons fed farther from the ice sheet in more forested habitat. Since these extinct species are related to elephants, understanding their lives could be invaluable for understanding their present, extant relatives.