Elephants and Relatives

By | September 9, 2016

The three living species of elephant are the largest land animals today. But elephants weren’t always so huge. The earliest known species was just 2 ft (60 cm) tall—the size of a cat. Over time they grew larger and their trunks and tusks grew longer, giving rise to an extraordinary range of giant mammals.


Key features
■ Almost all early elephants had trunks
■ Mostly naked, wrinkled skin
■ Most had tusks
■ Columnlike legs

The first elephants appeared in the Paleogene Period (about 40 million years ago).

Deinotherium (DIE-no-THEER-ee-um)


When: 10 million to 10,000 years ago (Neogene)

Fossil location: Europe, Africa, Asia

Habitat: Woodlands

Height: 16 ft (5 m) tall at the shoulder

Diet: Plants

The third largest land mammal that ever lived, Deinotherium was slightly larger than a modern African elephant. Its trunk was much shorter than a modern elephant’s, and it had backward-curving tusks that grew from the lower jaw. It might have used the tusks to dig up roots, strip bark, or pull down branches to reach the leaves.

Gomphotherium (GOM-foe-THEE-ree-um)


When: 15–5 million years ago (Neogene)

Fossil location: N. America, Europe, Asia, Africa

Habitat: Swamps

Height: 10 ft (3 m) tall at the shoulder

Diet: Plants

Gomphotherium had two pairs of tusks—one pair extending from its upper jaw, and another smaller, shovel-shaped pair growing out of its lower jaw. The larger tusks were probably used for fighting and display, and the smaller ones to scrape up plants and strip tree bark.

Arsinoitherium (AR-sin-oh-ee-THEER-ee-um)


When: 35–30 million years ago (Paleogene)

Fossil location: Africa

Habitat: Plains

Height: 6 ft (2 m) tall at the shoulder

Diet: Plants

Arsinoitherium belonged to an extinct family of mammals that was related to the elephant family, but it was not an elephant. It had no trunk and looked like a rhino, with two huge horns on its snout that were likely used by males for display or fights over females. Arsinoitherium’s hind legs were crooked and perhaps better suited to a life wallowing in water than walking on land.


Arsinoitherium’s huge double horn was hollow.

Moeritherium (MEH-ree-THEER-ee-um)


When: 37–30 million years ago (Paleogene)

Fossil location: Egypt

Habitat: Swamps

Length: 10 ft (3 m)

Diet: Plants

Moeritherium was a close cousin of the elephant family and had the beginnings of a trunk. It was much smaller than modern elephants and had a long body with very short legs. It perhaps lived like a hippo, wallowing in lakes and rivers and feeding on water plants, using its flexible lips to grasp stems. The large teeth in both its upper and lower jaws formed small tusks that jutted out of its mouth.

Platybelodon (PLAT-ee-BELL-oh-don)


When: 10–6 million years ago (Neogene)

Fossil location: N. America, Africa, Asia, Europe

Habitat: Plains

Height: 10 ft (3 m) tall at the shoulder

Diet: Plants

The lower tusks of Platybelodon (“shovel tusker”) were flat and close together, forming a shovel perhaps used to scoop up plants from water or marshes. Wear marks on the lower tusks show that it also used its tusks as blades to slice across branches. Like modern elephants, Platybelodon had columnlike legs supporting its body. It also had fatty pads under its feet that helped to bear its massive weight.

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