Deinotherium

deinotherium
Deinotherium (Heinrich Harder).

Name:

Deinotherium (Greek for "terrible mammal"); pronounced DIE-no-THEE-ree-um

Habitat:

Woodlands of Africa and Eurasia

Historical Epoch:

Middle Miocene-Modern (10 million to 10,000 years ago)

Size and Weight:

About 16 feet long and 4-5 tons

Diet:

Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large size; downward-curving tusks on lower jaw

 

About Deinotherium

The "deino" in Deinotherium derives from the same Greek root as the "dino" in dinosaur--this "terrible mammal" (actually a genus of prehistoric elephant) was one of the largest non-dinosaur animals ever to roam the earth, rivaled only by contemporary "thunder beasts" like Brontotherium and Chalicotherium.

Apart from its sizable (four to five ton) weight, the most notable feature of Deinotherium was its short, downward-curving tusks, so different from the usual elephant appendages that puzzled 19th-century paleontologists managed to reassemble them upside down. 

Deinotherium wasn't directly ancestral to modern-day elephants, instead inhabiting an evolutionary side branch along with close relatives like Amebeledon and Anancus. The "type species" of this megafauna mammal, D. giganteum, was discovered in Europe in the early 19th century, but subsequent excavations show the course of its peregrinations over the next few million years: from its home base in Europe, Deinotherium radiated eastward, into Asia, but by the start of the Pleistocene epoch it was restricted to Africa. (The other two generally accepted species of Deinotherium are D. indicum, named in 1845, and D. bozasi, named in 1934.)

Amazingly, isolated populations of Deinotherium persisted into historical times, until they either succumbed to changing climatic conditions (shortly after the end of the last Ice Age, about 12,000 years ago) or were hunted to extinction by early Homo sapiens. Some scholars speculate that these giant beasts inspired ancient tales of, well, giants, which would make Deinotherium yet another plus-sized megafauna mammal to have fired the imaginations of our distant ancestors (for example, the single-horned Elasmotherium may well have inspired the legend of the unicorn).