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American Mastodon


  • Scientific name: Mammut americanum
  • Epoch: Early Miocene persisting into post-Pleistocene (2.6 mya to 11.7 kya)
  • Diet: Herbivorous
  • Conservation status: Extinct
  • Cause of extinction: Largely unknown but over-hunting possibly contributory
  • Fun fact: Fossils have been found as far south as Florida!

Additional source: Britannica

Image source: Smithsonian

The finding of Mastodon fossils is one of the major discoveries that lead to the current understanding of extinction as we know it. Cuvier saw the teeth of the Mastodon and knew that this was no elephant. Cuvier could be said to be the father of the concept of extinction. During his time, Cuvier’s ideas were at times highly disputed. While being the original proponent of extinction, Cuvier was outspokenly anti-evolution. And while his list of extinct species kept growing and growing, Cuvier had no idea what caused the demise of these animals. He had found only one piece of the puzzle.

Again Kolbert seeks to show how we arrived at our current understanding of extinction, but the process was piecemeal. Each discovery builds upon the last. And so here we are today, and no less arrogant than the scientists of Cuvier’s day, we think we have it all figured out. This is dangerous thinking, for one day future scientists, perhaps creating a website for a similar book, will look back on us and laugh at what we do not know. And our entire understanding of extinction began its journey in modern science all because one man could definitively say that mastodons no longer exist from a look at a few teeth.

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