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Implications for Late Pleistocene Mastodon Diet from Opal Phytoliths in Tooth Calculus

  • Katrina E. Gobetz (a1) and Steven R. Bozarth (a2)

Calculus removed from the molar teeth of four American mastodons (Mammut americanum) contained opal phytoliths which reflect major dietary components. Three samples contained abundant grass phytoliths (ca. 86% of total), with long cells and trapezoidal pooid short cells dominant (ca. 25 and 31%, respectively). Dicot phytoliths from hackberry (Celtis sp.) seeds and indeterminate deciduous trees were rare (1–3%), though well preserved, whereas phytoliths from conifer trees were not recognizable in any of the samples. Comparative analysis of calculus from modern and fossil browsers and mixed feeders implies that dicots and conifers are nearly invisible in the phytolith record. This scarcity may result from poor preservation, low silica production in woody taxa, and/or animals' selection of young, silica-poor leaves and shoots. However, abundant grass phytoliths in the mixed feeders suggest that presence versus absence of grass phytoliths may distinguish mixed feeders and grazers from browsers. Mastodons are traditionally considered browsers, but grass phytolith assemblages in three individual mastodons contained similarly high concentrations of pooids, suggesting that these grasses were a significant part of the diet. Abundant pooid phytoliths, in addition to diatoms, indicate that these mastodons grazed in a cool, moist late Pleistocene environment, possibly near water.

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Quaternary Research
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