NH Notes: A Trunk and Tusk-Challenged Fossil Elephant

Deinotherium fossil skeleton showing just how large these animals were along with the very strange downward pointing tusks emanating from the lower jaw. Image Credit – link to Wikipedia for large image.

I have been thinking about Elephants the last couple of days and may write more about elephant following in the vein of my recent posts on horses.  For now I just want to introduce you to one really weird extinct elephant.  I call it an elephant because of its obvious similarities but just like with horses, the definition of species and what it means to be of the same “kind” is not easy to define (see: When is a horse is a horse: the species definition problem).  Case and point: Deinotherium which means “terror beast” in Greek.   The tusks pointing down from their lower jaw are the most obvious distinctive feature. Modern elephants and the extinct woolly mammoths and mastodons all have tusks that arise from their upper jaw.  In other respects these animals probably looked very much like elephants.

This elephant-like mammal isn’t just known from one bizarre fossil that has downward pointing tusks but many dozens of skulls and many more teeth and jawbones that have been found thousands of miles apart.  Members of this genus apparently were widespread and probably quite common in the past. Remains have been found from Kenya, north to Europe and most of southern Asia.  Paleontologists have described at least three species of in this genus all of which have the strange downward pointing tusks on the lower jaw.   One species, Deinotherium giganteum, is represented by fossils showing it was larger than any elephant species alive today.  At least one species apparently even made their way onto the island of Create in the Mediterranean Sea.  A fossil tooth found there is quite clearly from this particular genus of “elephant.” There are remains of several other elephant species of multiple Mediterranean islands so there was apparently a time when elephants could either walk to these islands when the sea level was lower or at least low enough that the distance they would have to have swum wasn’t as great as it is today.

What did these animals do with those tusks?  No one knows.  Is has been suggested that they used them to pull up roots or rub the bark of off trees. Some studies of their teeth have suggested they were much more likely to eat leaves and trees parts rather than graze grass and material from the ground so maybe they could pull down branches with the tusks and then grab the branches with their much shorter trunk.  We don’t know for sure what they did with them but we do have the skulls that show without question that they existed with these strange tusks.

An artist depiction of a Deinotherium. At one species was larger than any present day elephant making these very impressive mammals. It wouldn’t be known how long the trunk is but an approximation based in the size of bones in the “nose” area showing the muscle attachments give an idea of how much weight could have been supported. Image Credit: Wikipedia – click for larger image.

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