In their keenness to demonstrate the incognitum's bulk and ferocity, the American naturalists appear to have become slightly carried away. They overestimated its size by a factor of six and gave it frightening claws, which in fact came from a Megalonyx, or giant ground sloth, found nearby. Rather remarkably, they persuaded themselves that the animal had enjoyed "the agility and ferocity of the tiger," and portrayed it in illustrations as pouncing with feline grace onto prey from boulders.
When tusks were discovered, they were forced into the animal's head in any number of inventive ways. One restorer screwed the tusks in upside down, like the fangs of a saber-toothed cat, which gave it a satisfyingly aggressive aspect. Another arranged the tusks so that they curved backwards on the engaging theory that the creature had been aquatic and had used them to anchor itself to trees while dozing. The most pertinent consideration about the incognitum, however, was that it appeared to be extinct—a fact that Buffon cheerfully seized upon as proof of its incontestably degenerate nature.
Buffon died in 1788, but the controversy rolled on. In 1795 a selection of bones made their way to Paris, where they were examined by the rising star of paleontology, the youthful and aristocratic Georges Cuvier. Cuvier was already dazzling people with his genius for taking heaps of disarticulated bones and whipping them into shapely forms. It was said that he could describe the look and nature of an animal from a single tooth or scrap of jaw, and often name the species and genus into the bargain. Realizing that no one in America had thought to write a formal description of the lumbering beast, Cuvier did so, and thus became its official discoverer. He called it a mastodon (which means, a touch unexpectedly, "nipple-teeth").