strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books

    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

  • Wall of the Dead

  • Categories

All-American Monsters–Part 3 (The Killer Nipple Teeth)

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 29, 2010

When similar teeth later turned up in South Carolina, slaves pointed out that they looked a lot like an African elephant’s. Early explorers also brought back whole tusks and bones from the Ohio River Valley. Americans soon started referring to the incognitum as a “mammoth,” after the woolly mammoths then being dug out of the ice in Siberia. It fact, it would turn out that North America had been home primarily to two different types of pachyderm—mammoths, like the ones at the dig in South Dakota, and mastodons, like the ones in the Hudson River Valley. Hardly anybody knew the difference.

European anatomists started to figure out the distinction by making side-by-side comparisons. The teeth of mammoths and modern elephants both have relatively flat running-shoe corrugations on the biting surface. But the teeth of the incognitum are studded with fierce-looking rows of large conical cusps. That difference not only indicated that Siberian mammoths and the incognitum were separate species, it also led some anatomists to regard the latter as a flesh-eating monster.

“Though we may as philosophers regret it,” the British anatomist William Hunter wrote in 1768, “as men we cannot but thank Heaven that its whole generation is probably extinct.” Benjamin Franklin, then on diplomatic duty in London, observed that the animal’s big tusks would have been an impediment “for pursuing and taking Prey.” Ever the practical thinker, he suggested that those fierce-looking teeth might be “as useful to grind the small branches of Trees, as to chaw Flesh”—and he was right. We now know that mammoths predominated in the open grasslands of the American West and in Siberia, where they needed flat teeth for eating grass. The incognitum, a smaller animal with less curvature to its tusks, lived mostly in the heavy forests east of the Mississippi River and browsed on tree branches.

Those teeth also eventually gave the incognitum a name. To the young French anatomist Georges Cuvier, the conical cusps looked like breasts. So in 1806, he named the incognitum “mastodon,” from the Greek mastos (for “breast”) and odont (for “tooth”). But laymen went on applying the name “mammoth” to either species—and to just about anything else really big.  (To be continued.)

2 Responses to “All-American Monsters–Part 3 (The Killer Nipple Teeth)”

  1. Loved the article, though I do need to take issue with your characterization of Edward Taylor as having written “bad poetry” about the Claverack bones. His poem, “The Description of the Great Bones Dug Up at Claverack on the Banks of Hudsons River A.D. 1705” adopts many of the aesthetic conventions of the sonneteer’s blazon (the origins of which can be traced back to the Song of Songs), and redeploys them in imagining the creature whose bones these are. It’s a pretty subversive move, and it’s reinforced by the antimetrical swagger of his lines. I’d hate to have Taylor (one of the two first great American poets, with Anne Bradstreet) maligned undeservedly–and those who are interested in seeing more of his work should consult the excellent volume edited by Donald Stanford.

  2. Thank you, Kimberly. It is such a delight to be admonished so intelligently. I actually studied prosody, roughly Spenser to Milton, for my senior essay in college, but know nothing about the sonneteer’s blazon. I lost patience with Taylor for a line (not quoted in the article) describing the incognitum as having a nose “like an hanging pillar wide.” But I will give him another try. For others so inclined, the title of the Donald Stanford volume is “The Poems of Edward Taylor.” You can also find a biography “Edward Taylor,” also by Stanford, on Googlebooks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s