Platybelodon

platybelodon
Platybelodon (Wikimedia Commons).

Name:

Platybelodon (Greek for "flat tusk"); pronounced PLAT-ee-BELL-oh-don

Habitat:

Swamps, lakes and rivers of Africa and Eurasia

Historical Epoch:

Late Miocene (10 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About 10 feet long and 2-3 tons

Diet:

Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Flat, shovel-shaped, joined tusks on lower jaw; possible prehensile trunk

 

About Platybelodon

As you may have guessed from its name, Platybelodon (Greek for "flat tusk") was a close relative of Amebelodon ("shovel-tusk"): both of these prehistoric elephants presumably used their flattened lower tusks to dig up the moist vegetation along the flooded plains, lakebeds and riverbanks of late Miocene Africa and Eurasia, about 10 million years ago.

The main difference between the two was that Platybelodon's fused silverware was much more advanced than Amebelodon's, with a broad, concave, serrated surface that bore an uncanny resemblance to a modern spork; measuring about two or three feet long and a foot wide, it certainly gave this prehistoric proboscid a pronounced underbite.

Recent scholarship has challenged the claim that Platybelodon wielded its lower tusk like a spork, digging this appendage deep into the muck and dredging up hundreds of pounds of vegetation. It turns out that Platybelodon's double lower tusk was much more densely and robustly built than would have been required for this simple task; an alternative theory is that this elephant grasped the branches of trees with its trunk, then swung its massive head back and forth to scythe down the tough plants underneath, or eve strip and eat bark. (You can thank Henry Fairfield Osborn, the one-time director of the American Museum of Natural History, for the trunkless dredging scenario, which he popularized in the 1930's.)