By Daniel C. Fisher, PhD, University of Michigan
The American mastodon, Mammut americanum, is currently the most abundant vertebrate species found at Snowmass Village. Mastodons were relatives of mammoths and elephants, and they all look somewhat similar. Mastodons differed from mammoths and elephants in being more heavily built, with somewhat shorter limbs, bulkier bodies, and more massive tusks. Their teeth were also distinctive; they started out with high cusps for breaking down leaves, twigs, bark, and other vegetation (a so-called "browsing" diet), although through use, they wore down. Mastodons were among the first elephant-like animals to reach North America, from Eurasia, about 15 million years ago (in contrast to mammoths, which arrived less than 2 million years ago). They were a significant component of the North American fauna until their extinction, about 10,000 years ago.
The mastodons recovered so far from the Snowmass Village site include males and females, young and old. While it is unusual to find this many mastodons at one site, it is not unknown. There are a few comparable sites. The tendency for mastodons to be discovered as isolated finds or as a few associated individuals may reflect their social structure. Adult males were probably often solitary, while adult females and calves probably lived in small family units. The reason there are so many individuals at Snowmass is likely related to the site's large area and the long time span represented at the site. We don't know yet, but we could easily have a record that spans several (if not many) tens of thousands of years.