Whilst we all know that modern elephants are beautiful and remarkable creatures, few may be familiar with the order of which they are from, Proboscidea. Proboscidea not only contains the elephantids, but a whole range of diverse mammals, some reaching magnificent sizes and each one more intriguing than the last.
Deinotherium quite literally means “terrible beast” and they trawled the savannah-like Miocene landscape. Deinotheriums most striking feature is certainly its menacing downward facing tusks, a complete skull found in the nineteenth century measured at just under a metre in length, the skull also showed very deep nasal bones suggesting it had a much wider and shorter trunk than modern elephants. The reason for the unusual orientation of the tusks has been debated, perhaps they were purely for attracting mates or maybe they had a vital role in stripping tree bark to eat. Deinotherium was quite a bit larger than modern elephants standing a whopping 4 metres tall (almost as tall as a double decker bus) and weighing in at an estimate 11-14 tonnes.
Palaeoxodon namadicus, otherwise known as the Asian straight-tusked elephant lived during the pleistocene. Little is known about these species and whether it is a species on its own rather than a subspecies within Palaeoxodon antiquus, yet is is known from a thigh bone over 5 foot in length which indicates a possible height of over 4.5 metres which would make Palaeoxodon namadicus the largest land mammal to have ever existed surpassing Deinotherium and Paraceratherium.
Gompotherium is another highly unusual member of the proboscidea. Gompotherium stood around 3 metres high and had 4 tusks extending straight from its jaw, the two bottom tusks are flattened and shovel-shaped leading to suggesting that they were used in digging and finding food. Gompotherium is believed to be the first of the proboscideans to escape its homeland and migrate towards north america, mammoths would eventually evolve from the shovel-tusked creature. Although they are unfamiliar to most, they were very successful and flourished in north america for over 10 million years (during the miocene and pliocene). Their demise coincides with the rise of todays modern elephants, perhaps they were outcompeted to extinction.
Stegodon stood at around 3.5 metres tall and weighing in a 12 tonnes, however it is not this beasts size that is hard to comprehend, but its enormous tusks which could reach a whopping 3 metres in length. Stegodons thrived in the golden age of elephants 11 million years ago, exactly when they died out is a mystery, some believe they contained to roam across north america as little as a few thousand years ago.
Mammoths are amongst the most recognisable prehistoric creatures, they were extremely successful and thrived during the ice age thanks to their masses of fur, migration patterns and small ears. They died out around 4500 years ago when the ice age came to an end, although it is widely thought that humans contributed to their reduction in numbers as we fed on their meat, wore their fur and used their immense tusks and skin for shelter. The largest known species of mammoths could reach 4 metres in height and weigh up to 7 or 8 tonnes and they travelled in herds much like modern elephants. Incredibly well preserved specimens have been found across the world in peat bogs and permafrost preserving skin, hair and some organs in immaculate condition, this has led to multiple projects hoping to bring back the mammoth, although this is still highly controversial.
All modern elephants are the only relic from the glorious evolutionary history of the proboscideans that we have left. They can reach 4 metres in height and weigh up 7 tonnes. Their tusks are used in competing for mates as well as for feeding and the trunks, perhaps the most recognisable feature of any animal, are analogous to human hands, they are used to grab things, communicate and sense their environment. Elephants travel in close herds led by a matriarch and have been shown to display emotions of grief when a valued member dies, their social structure is incredibly sophisticated and complex, when a matriarchs reign is over, their is a specific order of individuals to take her place, usually the eldest daughter. Separate families of elephants have even been known to form bonds with each other and socialise in passing. Elephants have long been attractive to humans, their skin has been sold, their tusks highly valued for decoration and medicine. Elephants have been relentlessly hunted by humans, so much so that in in the twentieth century their numbers declined by 74% in ten years. Over the last few decades multiple conservation efforts have been put in place to save these magnificent creatures from extinction, their population numbers have shown slight increases since the efforts began.
The proboscideans have been, and are still, one of the most remarkable groups in the animal kingdom. They have been incredibly successful since their first appearance over 40 million years ago, with only the elephants remaining we must save these wonderful animals from extinction for future generations to see and to continue the reign of one of the most spectacular dynasties in the animal kingdom.
In 1914, Othenio Abel, an Austrian paleontologist, suggested that the Cyclops of Homeric legend was based on fossil elephant finds in antiquity. Abel, who excavated many Mediterranean fossil beds, related the image of one-eyed giant cavemen to the remains of Pleistocene dwarf elephants,
Palaeoloxodon antiquus falconeri, common in coastal caves of Italy and Greece. Shipwrecked sailors unfamiliar with elephants might easily mistake the skull’s large nasal cavity for a central eye socket.
Skull of Palaeoloxodon falconeri, from Museum of Natural History of Verona.
Marble head of Polyphemus, first or second century A.D., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The small elephants ranged from 3 to 6 feet (1-1.8 m) high at the shoulder, and the skulls and teeth are much larger than men’s. In profile, elephant skulls do resemble grotesque human faces, and the vertebrae and limb bones could be laid out to resemble a giant man.
Since Cyclopes lived in caves, the ancient Greeks imagined them as primitive troglodytes who used rocks and clubs as weapons. The great piles of bones on the cave floors might be the remains of shipwrecked sailors—the savage Cyclopes were probably cannibals! Human occupation of Sicily and other islands where dwarf elephant bones abound occurred long before Homer, and descriptions of them probably circulated among sailors from Mycenaean times onward. The Cyclops story was assimilated into the epic poetry tradition and made famous in Homer’s Odyssey.
Palaeoloxodon antiquus falconeri was an archaic elephant that developed insular dwarfism due to the lacking of predators on mediterrenean islands.
The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times. Adrienne Mayor
Floret silva nobilis
floribus et foliis.
ubi est antiquus
eia, quis me amabit?
the noble forest blooms
with flowers and leaves.
where is my beloved
he has ridden hence.
alas, who will love me?
This fossil of a young Pterodactylus antiquus was found in the layers of limestone near Solnhofen, Germany, an area known for its rich fossil beds. Pterosaur bones rarely form fossils this clear and complete.
Pterosaur fossils are extremely rare because of the fragility of their skeletons, owing to their hollow bones.
Perhaps, early observers theorized, that specimen’s long skinny arm-and-finger bones were for swimming? Or was it some kind of toothed, clawed, winged bird? Or even a mammal? Debates raged, even after 1801, when the great French anatomist Georges Cuvier analyzed drawings of the skeleton and determined the animal to be something new to science: a flying reptile that Cuvier later named ptero-dactyle (wing finger in Greek).
The Jurassic hall is the oldest part of CMNH’s dinosaur display, the huge Diplodocus carnegii being the museum’s first dinosaur. This part of the hall has been updated with newer fossils since then, offering an impressive collection of Morrison fauna (and others). Across from the Diplodocus is its smaller cousin Apatosaurus, plus a juvenile underneath. Nipping at its tail is a possibly unwise Allosaurus.
Around the edge with the mural one finds the ornithischians represented as well, with Stegosaurus and Uteodon. Above the latter is a small mounted pterosaur, probably Pterodactylus by the looks of it.
Speaking of whom, there is a cast of the original Pterodactylus antiquus specimen nearby, along with that of the first full Archaeopteryx from Solnhofen.
Around the corner, one crosses over into the Cretaceous and, conveniently, a separate post.
Bison are large, even-toed ungulates in the genus Bison within the subfamily Bovinae. Two extant and four extinct species are recognized. Of the four extinct species, three were North American: Bison antiquus, B. latifrons, and B. occidentalis .
In the year 1954 in rural northwest Nebraska, two ranchers named Bill Hudson and Albert Meng were digging a pond when they uncovered a mass of bones. Archaeologist Larry Agenbroad was brought in to investigate soon after. What began as a few square meters of bones was revealed through excavations to be a massive bonebed of Bison Antiquus (about 25% larger than modern day bison, they could grow as tall as 7.5 ft at the shoulder). While only a small portion of the bone bed has been left open for viewers, taken in its entirety the bed is larger than a football field.
Located on the Oglala National Grasslands, the site sits on a windswept moor. Erosion, lack of tree cover, and the swift moving storms of the plains give the place a vulnerable feeling. That feeling is fitting for the site, as it is currently struggling for funding to remain open.