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A New Jersey Mastodon
Originally Published By
New Jersey State Museum

By Glenn L. Jepsen

Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2003

Mastodons were said by some writers to be flesh-eating beasts of prey, with "great claws, fierce dispositions, and the ability to catch other animals, by mighty leaps." Mastodons may indeed have been formidable animals, but even when they were alive they hardly deserved to be described by such purple prose as "this monster, with the agility and ferocity of the tiger, must have been the terror of the forest and of man," or "it was cruel as the bloody panther, swift as the descending eagle, terrible as the angel of right." With such ideas about the mastodon in mind one author was justified in saying "we cannot but thank heaven that its whole generation is probably extinct."

Benjamin Franklin was among the first people to conclude from the shape and size of the teeth that mastodons ate plants rather than meat. This theory has been abundantly proved since by the discovery of several skeletons each of which had several bushels of undigested food between the rows of ribs. Mastodons undoubtedly were browsers – they ate leaves and twigs (up to one-half inch in diameter) and cones of pine, cedar, fir, spruce and hemlock, and occasionally the leaves of other trees and grasses and reeds. They probably had to spend most of their time in eating, perhaps 16 to 18 hours per dav, as living elephants do. Mastodons were more abundant in our eastern forest than in other parts of the United States, and they seem to have been restricted to the areas where their preferred food grew in great abundance. Some of them lived as far north as Alaska and the Yukon, and as far south as Brazil.

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