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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

Mastodon teeth inside the mouth were smaller than elephant teeth and instead of having rather flat chewing-surfaces with many low ridges running from side to side, the unworn crowns of the cheek teeth of young mastodons had a few prominent cusps, covered by enamel. This shape led Cuvier to invent the term "mastodon," which has Greek roots meaning "nipple tooth," as a descriptive name. These teeth are so different from elephant molars that early explorers, to whom elephants were familiar, regarded them as belonging to some kind of wholly different animal – it was not believed that the tusks and cheek teeth could possibly belong to the same creature.

During its life growth a mastodon may have had as many as six teeth on each side of each jaw, above and below, a total of twenty four. These came in in a series, and formed excellent chopping devices with the ridges of the upper teeth fitting into the furrows of the lowers. By the time the sixth tooth in a series was erupted the "nipples" on the crowns of the front two or three, sometimes called "milk teeth," had been worn down by constant use to flat surfaces and were usually shed. The first two of these teeth had two cross ridges formed by pairs of cusps and the others, except the sixth which had four or five ridges, each had three. Very old individuals lost all but the last tooth, the sixth, in each series, but these four teeth were very large, some reaching a length of eight inches or more and a weight of several pounds. The roots of these teeth formed long prongs that were solidly anchored in bone. Mastodons probably didn't live as long as elephants do because the "nipple teeth," beautifully designed as they were for twig cutting, wore away rapidly, and no mastodon could survive as a gummer.

Male mastodons had larger molars and much longer tusks than lady mastodons and the left and right rows of their cheek teeth were more nearly parallel. Also in males the space was greater from the tusks to the other teeth.

Last lower molar tooth of American mastodon, showing long roots and nipple-like cusps on the crown. About one-third natural size. Draw- ing by Robert Bruce Horsfall.

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