The Moeritherium (‘the beast from Lake Moeris’) species were pig-like animals that lived about 37-35 million years ago during the Eocene epoch, and resembled modern tapirs or pygmy hippopotamuses (however, they are not believed to be related to either of those animals). These prehistoric mammals are related to the elephant and, more distantly, the sea cow. M. lyonsi was smaller than most or all later proboscideans, standing only 2.3 ft high at the shoulder and weighing 518 lbs. The shape of their teeth suggests that they ate soft water vegetation.
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.
palaeoart This is a quick video I took in the London Natural History Museum last month. This great display showcases the evolution of Proboscidean molars. Tracking from some of the earliest elephant ancestors - the Eocene Moeritherium - to the more recent but extinct Pleistocene Stegodons and Mammoths. This illustrates 40 million years of molar evolution and how teeth adapted to the different vegetation on offer.
It had been a turbulent summer. The sky was always moving, always changing, islands of clouds skimming below the blue, ushering seas of grey and waves of rain every day. Smilodon spent more time than usual on the lee sides of outcroppings, huddled against stone to keep out of chilling showers. Lighting cracked at nearby trees, drew searing lines between earth and sky. The ground was soggy and uncomfortable underfoot after these storms. The cat was miserable.
And it was happening again. The sky heaved layers of white and slate, piled into thunderheads pushing gusts of cold air over the valley. The proboscideans didn’t seem to mind. Maybe they were too massive to care about wind and clouds. Maybe the sky wasn’t dark enough to warrant attention.
There were a few calves in the group. They squeaked between the adults’ trumpets, gamboled under their mothers’ swaying tree-trunk legs, and pulled dead branches from undeserving bushes.
Smilodon watched the mammoths, drooled when it saw the babies. The breeze swept up from the valley and filled its nose with the smell of the things. But it would be stupid to go after a mammoth calf alone. The wind moved again, brought the smell of oncoming rain, and the cat sulked back to the rocks to wait out the next storm.
Seen here are the skull and jaws of Phiomia minor, which lived during the Eocene Epoch, 35 million years ago. Phiomia represents an early stage in the development of proboscideans. The tusks of Phiomia were larger than those of the earliest proboscideans, and the molars were still fairly simple, growing in one at a time, rather than the sequential “conveyor belt” style of replacement found in more advanced proboscideans.
Three-dimensional scans of two mummified newborn woolly mammoths recovered from the Siberian Arctic are revealing previously inaccessible details about the early development of prehistoric proboscideans. The research, conducted in part by American Museum of Natural History Richard Gilder Graduate School student Zachary T. Calamari, also suggest that both animals died from suffocation after inhaling mud. The findings were published July 8 in a special issue of the Journal of Paleontology.
“These two exquisitely preserved baby mammoths are like two snapshots in time,” said Calamari, who began investigating mammoths as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan working with paleontologist Daniel Fisher. “We can use them to understand how factors like location and age influenced the way mammoths grew into the huge adults that captivate us today.”
Mounted specimen on display at the America Museum of Natural History, NYC
Reconstruction by Charles Knight.
When: Miocene to Pliocene (~12 - 3.5 million years ago)
Where: North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa
What: Gomphotherium is a four tusked extinct proboscidean. Unlike modern elephants which only have enlarged upper incisors as their tusks, Gomphotherium and its kin had enlarged upper and lower incisors. Neither set of tusks grew as large as living elephants, but the lower jaw was heavily modified and elongated to support the lower tusks. If you look at the photograph of the mounted specimen above, you can see that the actual bone of the mandible extends to almost the tip of the upper tusk. Based on the structure of the skull of Gomphotheriumit is thought the animal had a trunk, though again not one as log as the living species of elephants. Gomphotheriumis on the small side compared to the mammoth and mastodon in the photo with it, and also is a bit smaller than the living african elephant, but about the same size as the asian elephant - standing about 10 ft (3.2 meters) tall at the shoulder. These fourtuskers were proportioned very differently from the asian elephant, however. Their legs were much shorter in proportion to their body. The genus Gomphotheriumoriginated in North America, but spread throughout most of the world before going extinct in the Pliocene.
Gomphotheriumin the group Gomphotheriidae (shocking I know). Gomphotheres ranged almost world-wide for over ten million years, and it is possible the last one died less than 10,000 years ago. I say only possible as relationships of gomphotheres, and really proboscideans as a whole, are really not well understood. Gomphotheriidae may be a paraphyletic series of taxa (not a ‘real’ group), with some taxa more closely related to the living species than others. Basically if you are interested in paleontology the study of proboscideans is an area that desperately needs more people in it. You also get to look at other cool extinct forms like Deinotherium!
Record-sized African Bush Elephant (Loxodonta africana) — presumably around 4 meters/13 feet at the shoulder — a Steppe Mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii) and Paraceratherium… which was actually around the same size as the mammoth.
Wood, G. (1982) The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats. Third Edition.