Forgotten Elephants of Deep Time with Paleobiologist Advait Jukar
- December 12, 2019
- Shows are ~45 minutes long and stream at 11am and 2pm ET
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The earliest elephant relatives originated in Africa about 60 million years ago and dispersed to every continent on earth, except Antarctica and Australia. There are about 165 known elephant species from the fossil record, and scientists estimate that there would have been many more that we haven't found yet, over the whole history of this special group, called a clade. In Earth’s more recent history, between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago, there were 16 species of elephants and their relatives living at the same time around the world, including at least 7 in the United States. Today, there are only three species of elephants that remain: the African savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana), the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). Populations of all three species are declining, with Asian elephants at a much higher risk of extinction.
Today’s elephants are part of the order Proboscidea which consists of modern elephants and their extinct relatives such as mastodons, mammoths, and gomphotheres. All of the animals in this group have a proboscis, or trunk, that they use to eat and drink. While today there are only two surviving elephant genera, the African and Asian elephant, their evolutionary history is much more diverse.
Paleontologists use fossil elephant teeth to understand the animal’s diet and feeding behavior. There are two main types of teeth: high crowned and low-crowned teeth.
- High-Crowned Teeth: Animals that consume tougher, more abrasive foods are likely to wear down their teeth over time, and thus have evolved to have higher-crowned teeth as a result. These animals typically have an herbivorous grazing diet; they graze grasses.
- Low-Crowned Teeth: Animals that eat softer food have less wear, and therefore have low-crowned teeth. These animals typically have an herbivorous browsing diet; they browse branches, eating soft leaves.