Prehistoric Elephants: Pictures and Profiles

From the Amebelodon to the Woolly Mammoth

Ancestors of modern elephants were some of the largest and strangest megafauna mammals to roam the Earth after the extinction of the dinosaurs. Some are well known, such as the cartoon favorite woolly mammoth and the American mastodon, while not as many people are familiar with the Amebelodon and the Gomphotherium.

Here are pictures and profiles of these Cenozoic Era elephants:

Amebelodon

Illustration of herd of Amebelodons
DEA PICTURE LIBRARY / Getty Images

Name: Amebelodon (Greek for "shovel tusk"); pronounced AM-ee-BELL-oh-don

Habitat: Plains of North America

Historical Epoch: Late Miocene (10 million to 6 million years ago)

Size and Weight: 10 feet long and 1 to 2 tons

Diet: Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics: Large size; shovel-shaped lower tusks

The Amebelodon was the prototypical shovel-toothed elephant of the late Miocene epoch. This giant herbivore's two lower tusks were flat, close together, and near the ground, the better to dig up semi-aquatic plants from the North American floodplains where it lived, and perhaps to scrape the bark off tree trunks. Because this elephant was so well adapted to its semi-aquatic environment, the Amebelodon likely became extinct when extended dry spells restricted and finally eliminated its North American grazing grounds.

American Mastodon

Mastodon skeleton, George C Page Museum at La Brea Tar Pits.
Lonely Planet / Getty Images

Name: American Mastodon ("nipple teeth"), referring to nipple-like protrusions on its crowns

Habitat: North America, from Alaska to central Mexico and U.S. eastern seaboard

Historical Epoch: Paleogene period (30 million years ago)

Size and Weight: Females 7 feet tall, males 10 feet; up to 6 tons

Diet: Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics: Long tusks, large pillar-like legs, flexible trunk, nipple teeth

Mastodons' tusks tended to be less curved than those of their cousins, the woolly mammoths, sometimes exceeding 16 feet in length and nearly horizontal. Fossil specimens of the American mastodon have been dredged up almost 200 miles off the coast of the northeast U.S., demonstrating how far water levels have risen since the end of the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs. 

Anancus

Anancus arvernensis, Proboscidea, Pleistocene epoch of Europe.
Nobumichi Tamura/Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

Name: Anancus (after an ancient Roman king); pronounced an-AN-cuss

Habitat: Jungles of Eurasia

Historical Epoch: Late Miocene to Early Pleistocene (3 million to 1.5 million years ago)

Size and Weight: 10 feet tall and 1 to 2 tons

Diet: Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics: Long, straight tusks; short legs

Apart from two idiosyncratic features—its long, straight tusks and its relatively short legs—the Anancus looked more like a modern elephant than its fellow prehistoric pachyderms. This Pleistocene mammal's tusks were a whopping 13 feet long (almost as long as the rest of its body) and probably were used both to root up plants from the soft forest soil of Eurasia and to intimidate predators. Similarly, the Anancus' broad, flat feet and short legs were adapted to life in its jungle habitat, where a sure-footed touch was needed to navigate the thick undergrowth.

Barytherium

Barytherium
Barytherium. UK Geological Society

Name: Barytherium (Greek for "heavy mammal"); pronounced BAH-ree-THEE-ree-um

Habitat: Woodlands of Africa

Historical Epoch: Late Eocene to early Oligocene (40 million to 30 million years ago)

Size and Weight: 10 feet long and 1 to 2 tons

Diet: Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics: Two pairs of tusks on upper and lower jaws

Paleontologists know a lot more about the Barytherium's tusks, which tended to preserve better in the fossil record than soft tissue, than they do about its trunk. This prehistoric elephant had eight short, stubby tusks, four in its upper jaw and four in its lower jaw, but no one has unearthed evidence about its proboscis, which might or might not have looked like that of a modern elephant. The Barytherium, however, wasn't directly ancestral to modern elephants; it represented an evolutionary side branch of mammals combining elephant- and hippo-like characteristics.

Cuvieronius

Cuvieronius
Sergiodlarosa (CC BY 3.0) Wikimedia Commons

Name: Cuvieronius (named after French naturalist Georges Cuvier); pronounced COO-vee-er-OWN-ee-us

Habitat: Woodlands of North and South America

Historical Epoch: Pliocene to Modern (5 million to 10,000 years ago)

Size and Weight: 10 feet long and 1 ton

Diet: Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics: Modest size; long, spiraling tusks

The Cuvieronius is famous as one of the few prehistoric elephants (the other documented example is the Stegomastodon) to have colonized South America, taking advantage of the "Great American Interchange" that connected North and South America a few million years ago. This smallish elephant was distinguished by its long, spiraling tusks, reminiscent of those found on narwhals. It seems to have adapted to life in high, mountainous regions and may have been hunted to extinction by early human settlers on the Argentine Pampas.

Deinotherium

Deinotherium giganteum
Nobu Tamura (CC BY 3.0) Wikimedia Commons

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

Habitat: Woodlands of Africa and Eurasia

Historical Epoch: Middle Miocene to Modern (10 million to 10,000 years ago)

Size and Weight: About 16 feet long and 4 to 5 tons

Diet: Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics: Large size; downward-curving tusks on lower jaw

Apart from its massive, 10-ton weight, the most notable feature of the Deinotherium was its short, downward-curving tusks, so different from the tusks of modern elephants that puzzled 19th century paleontologists initially reconstructed them upside down.

Dwarf Elephant

Dwarf Elephant
Dwarf Elephant. Hamelin de Guettelet (CC BY-SA 3.0) Wikimedia Commons

Name: Dwarf Elephant

Habitat: Small islands of the Mediterranean Sea

Historical Epoch: Pleistocene to Modern (2 million to 10,000 years ago)

Size and Weight: About six feet long and 500 pounds

Diet: Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics: Small size; long tusks

The phenomenon of "insular dwarfism" probably explains the animal's size: When its larger ancestors arrived on islands, they began evolving toward smaller sizes in response to limited food sources. It hasn't been proved that the extinction of the dwarf elephant had anything to do with early human settlement of the Mediterranean. However, a tantalizing theory holds that skeletons of dwarf elephants were interpreted as Cyclopes by early Greeks. They should not be confused with pygmy elephants, a smaller relative of African elephants that still exists.

Gomphotherium

gomphotherium
Gomphotherium. Ghedoghedo ( CC BY-SA 3.0) Wikimedia Commons

Name: Gomphotherium (Greek for "welded mammal"); pronounced GOM-foe-THEE-ree-um

Habitat: Swamps of North America, Africa, and Eurasia

Historical Epoch: Early Miocene to Early Pliocene (15 million to 5 million years ago)

Size and Weight: About 13 feet long and 4 to 5 tons

Diet: Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics: Straight tusks on upper jaw; shovel-shaped tusks on lower jaw

With its shovel-shaped lower tusks, which were used for scooping up vegetation from flooded swamps and lake beds, the Gomphotherium set the pattern for the later shovel-toothed elephant Amebelodon, which had an even more pronounced digging apparatus. For a prehistoric elephant of the Miocene and Pliocene epochs, the Gomphotherium was remarkably widespread, taking advantage of various land bridges to colonize Africa and Eurasia from its original stomping grounds in North America.

Moeritherium

moeritherium
Moeritherium. Heinrich Harder (Public domain) Wikimedia Commons

Name: Moeritherium (Greek for "Lake Moeris beast"); pronounced MEH-ree-THEE-ree-um

Habitat: Swamps of northern Africa

Historical Epoch: Late Eocene (37 million to 35 million years ago)

Size and Weight: About eight feet long and a few hundred pounds

Diet: Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics: Small size; long, flexible upper lip and nose

The Moeritherium wasn't directly ancestral to modern elephants, occupying a side branch that went extinct millions of years ago, but this pig-size mammal had enough elephant-like traits to place it firmly in the pachyderm camp.

Palaeomastodon

palaeomastodon
Palaeomastodon. Heinrich Harder (Public domain) Wikimedia Commons

Name: Palaeomastodon (Greek for "ancient mastodon"); pronounced PAL-ay-oh-MAST-oh-don

Habitat: Swamps of northern Africa

Historical Epoch: Late Eocene (35 million years ago)

Size and Weight: About 12 feet long and 2 tons

Diet: Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics: Long, flat skull; upper and lower tusks

Despite its vague resemblance to modern elephants, the Palaeomastodon is believed to have been more closely related to the Moeritherium, one of the earliest elephant ancestors yet identified, than to today's African or Asian breeds. Confusingly, too, the Palaeomastodon wasn't closely related to the North American Mastodon (technically known as Mammut and evolved tens of millions of years later), nor to its fellow prehistoric elephant Stegomastodon or Mastodonsaurus, which wasn't a mammal but a prehistoric amphibian. Anatomically speaking, the Palaeomastodon was distinguished by its scoop-shaped lower tusks, which it used to dredge plants from flooded riversides and lake beds.

Phiomia

phiomia
Phiomia. LadyofHats (Public domain) Wikimedia Commons

Name: Phiomia (after the Fayum area of Egypt); pronounced fee-OH-mee-ah

Habitat: Woodlands of northern Africa

Historical Epoch: Late Eocene to Early Oligocene (37 million to 30 million years ago)

Size and Weight: About 10 feet long and half a ton

Diet: Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics: Small size; short trunk and tusks

About 40 million years ago, the line that led to modern elephants began with a group of prehistoric mammals native to northern Africa: medium-size, semi-aquatic herbivores sporting rudimentary tusks and trunks. The Phiomia seems to have been more elephant-like than its close contemporary Moeritherium, a pig-size creature with some hippopotamus-like features that nevertheless still counts as a prehistoric elephant. Whereas Moeritherium lived in swamps, Phiomia thrived on terrestrial vegetation and probably evidenced the beginnings of a distinctly elephant-like trunk.

Phosphatherium

Phosphatherium skull
Phosphatherium skull. DagdaMor (CC BY-SA 4.0) Wikimedia Commons

Name: Phosphatherium (Greek for "phosphate mammal"); pronounced FOSS-fah-THEE-ree-um

Habitat: Woodlands of Africa

Historical Epoch: Middle to Late Paleocene (60 million to 55 million years ago)

Size and Weight: About 3 feet long and 30 to 40 pounds

Diet: Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics: Small size; narrow snout

If you had happened across the Phosphatherium 60 million years ago, during the Paleocene epoch, you probably wouldn't have been able to tell whether it would evolve into a horse, a hippo, or an elephant. Paleontologists can tell that this dog-size herbivore was actually a prehistoric elephant by examining its teeth and the skeletal structure of its skull, both important anatomical clues to its proboscid lineage. The Phosphatherium's immediate descendants of the Eocene epoch included the Moeritherium, Barytherium and Phiomia, the last being the only mammal that could be recognized as an ancestral elephant.

Platybelodon

Platybelodon
Boris Dimitrov (CC BY-SA 3.0) 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 to 3 tons

Diet: Plants

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

The Platybelodon ("flat tusk") was a close relative of the Amebelodon ("shovel-tusk"), both of which used their flattened lower tusks to dig up vegetation from flooded plains and perhaps to dislodge loosely rooted trees.

Primelephas

Primelephas
A. C. Tatarinov (CC BY-SA 3.0) Wikimedia Commons

Name: Primelephas (Greek for "first elephant"); pronounced pri-MEL-eh-fuss

Habitat: Woodlands of Africa

Historical Epoch: Late Miocene (5 million years ago)

Size and Weight: About 13 feet long and 2 tons

Diet: Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics: Elephant-like appearance; tusks in upper and lower jaws

In evolutionary terms, the Primelephas was the latest common ancestor of modern African and Eurasian elephants and the recently extinct woolly mammoth (known to paleontologists by its genus name, Mammuthus). With its large size, distinctive tooth structure, and long trunk, this prehistoric elephant was very similar to modern pachyderms, the only notable difference being the smallish "shovel tusks" jutting from its lower jaw. As to the identify of the Primelephas' immediate ancestor, that might have been Gomphotherium, which lived earlier in the Miocene epoch.

Stegomastodon

stegomastodon
Stegomastodon. WolfmanSF (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Name: Stegomastodon (Greek for "roof nippled tooth"); pronounced STEG-oh-MAST-oh-don

Habitat: Plains of North and South America

Historical Epoch: Late Pliocene to Modern (three million to 10,000 years ago)

Size and Weight: About 12 feet long and 2 to 3 tons

Diet: Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics: Moderate size; long, upward-curving tusks; complex cheek teeth

Its name makes it sound like a cross between a stegosaurus and a mastodon, but you'll be disappointed to learn that Stegomastodon is actually Greek for "roof nippled tooth." It was a fairly typical prehistoric elephant of the late Pliocene epoch. 

Stegotetrabelodon

Stegotetrabelodon primitive elephant, side profile.
Corey Ford/Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

Name: Stegotetrabelodon (Greek for "roofed four tusks"); pronounced STEG-oh-TET-row-BELL-oh-don

Habitat: Woodlands of central Asia

Historical Period: Late Miocene (7 million to 6 million years ago)

Size and Weight: About 15 feet long and 2 to 3 tons

Diet: Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics: Large size; tusks in upper and lower jaws

Its name doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but the Stegotetrabelodon might turn out to be one of the most important elephant ancestors ever identified. In early 2012, researchers in the Middle East discovered the preserved footprints of a herd of over a dozen Stegotetrabelodons of various ages and both sexes, dating from about 7 million years ago in the late Miocene epoch. Not only is this the earliest known evidence of elephant herding behavior, but it also shows that, millions of years ago, the dry, dusty landscape of the United Arab Emirates was home to a rich assortment of megafauna mammals.

Straight-Tusked Elephant

Illustration of Straight-tusked Elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) from Pleistocene epoch
Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

Name: Straight-Tusked Elephant; also known as Palaeoloxodon and Elephas antiquus

Habitat: Plains of western Europe

Historical Epoch: Middle to Late Pleistocene (1 million to 50,000 years ago)

Size and Weight: About 12 feet tall and 2 to 3 tons

Diet: Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics: Large size; long, slightly curved tusks

Most paleontologists consider the straight-tusked elephant of Pleistocene Eurasia to be an extinct species of Elephas, Elephas antiquus, though some prefer to assign it to its own genus, Palaeoloxodon. 

Tetralophodon

Tetralophodon
The four-cusped molar of Tetralophodon. Colin Keates/Getty Images

Name: Tetralophodon (Greek for "four-ridged tooth"); pronounced TET-rah-LOW-foe-don

Habitat: Woodlands worldwide

Historical Epoch: Late Miocene to Pliocene (3 million to 2 million years ago)

Size and Weight: About 8 feet high and 1 ton

Diet: Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics: Moderate size; four tusks; large, four-cusped molars

The "tetra" in Tetralophodon refers to this prehistoric elephant's unusually large, four-cusped cheek teeth, but it could apply equally well to the Tetralophodon's four tusks, which mark it as a "gomphothere" proboscid (a close relative of the better-known Gomphotherium). Like the Gomphotherium, the Tetralophodon enjoyed an unusually wide distribution during the late Miocene and early Pliocene epochs. Fossils of various species have been found as far afield as North and South America, Africa and Eurasia.

Woolly Mammoth

Woolly mammoths, artwork
Science Photo Library - LEONELLO CALVETTI / Getty Images

Name: Woolly Mammoth

Habitat: British Islands through Siberia into North America

Historical Epoch: Late Pleistocene to late Holocene (250,000 to 4,000 years ago)

Size and Weight: Up to 11 feet, six tons

Diet: Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics: Long, strongly curved tusks, dense coat of hair, hind legs shorter than torelegs

Unlike its leaf-eating relative, the American mastodon, the woolly mammoth grazed on grass. Thanks to cave paintings, we know that the woolly mammoth was hunted to extinction by early humans, who coveted its shaggy coat as much as its meat.