Prehistoric Elephant Pictures and Profiles

01
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Meet the Prehistoric Elephants of the Cenozoic Era

woolly mammoth
Royal BC Museum

The ancestors of modern elephants were some of the largest, and strangest, megafauna mammals to roam the earth after the extinction of the dinosaurs. On the following slides, you'll find pictures and detailed profiles of 20 prehistoric elephants, ranging from Amebelodon to the Woolly Mammoth.

02
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Amebelodon

amebelodon
Amebelodon. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

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

Habitat:

Plains of North America

Historical Epoch:

Late Miocene (10-6 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About 10 feet long and 1-2 tons

Diet:

Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large size; shovel-shaped lower tusks

 

Amebelodon was the prototypical shovel-toothed elephant of the late Miocene epoch: this giant herbivore's two lower tusks were flat, close together and close to 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 prehistoric elephant was so well-adapted to its semi-aquatic environment, Amebelodon likely became extinct when extended spells of dry weather restricted, and then finally eliminated, its North American grazing grounds.

03
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The American Mastodon

mastodon
Mastodon (Smithsonian Institution).

Fossil specimens of the American Mastodon have been dredged up almost 200 miles off the coast of the northeast U.S., which demonstrates how far water levels have risen since the end of the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs. See 10 Facts About Mastodons

04
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Anancus

anancus
Anancus (Wikimedia Commons).

Name:

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

Habitat:

Jungles of Eurasia

Historical Epoch:

Late Miocene-Early Pleistocene (3-1.5 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About 10 feet tall and 1-2 tons

Diet:

Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Long, straight tusks; short legs

 

Apart from two idiosyncratic features--its long, straight tusks and its relatively short legs--Anancus looked more like a modern elephant than any of 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 were probably used both to root up plants from the soft forest soil of Eurasia and to intimidate predators. Similarly, 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.

05
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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-early Oligocene (40-30 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About 10 feet long and 1-2 tons

Diet:

Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Two pairs of tusks on upper and lower jaws

 

Paleontologists know a lot more about Barytherium's tusks, which tend 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 to date no one has unearthed any evidence for its proboscis (which may or may not have looked like that of a modern elephant). Bear in mind, though, that Barytherium wasn't directly ancestral to modern elephants; rather, it represented an evolutionary side branch of mammals combining elephant-like and hippo-like characteristics.

06
of 20

Cuvieronius

cuvieronius
Cuvieronius. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

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

Habitat:

Woodlands of North and South America

Historical Epoch:

Pliocene-Modern (5 million to 10,000 years ago)

Size and Weight:

About 10 feet long and one ton

Diet:

Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Modest size; long, spiraling tusks

 

Cuvieronius is famous for being one of the few prehistoric elephants (the only other documented example is 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 a narwhal. It seems to have been specially adapted for life in high, mountainous regions, and may have been hunted to extinction by early human settlers of the Argentinean Pampas.

07
of 20

Deinotherium

deinotherium
Deinotherium (Wikimedia Commons).

Apart from its massive, 10-ton weight, the most notable feature of 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. See an in-depth profile of Deinotherium

08
of 20

The Dwarf Elephant

dwarf elephant
Dwarf Elephant. Wikimedia Commons

It hasn't been proved that the extinction of the Dwarf Elephant had anything to do with early human settlement of the Mediterranean. However, there's a tantalizing theory that the skeletons of dwarf elephants were interpreted as Cyclops by early Greeks! See an in-depth profile of the Dwarf Elephant

09
of 20

Gomphotherium

gomphotherium
Gomphotherium. 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-Early Pliocene (15-5 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About 13 feet long and 4-5 tons

Diet:

Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Straight tusks on upper jaw; shovel-shaped tusks on lower jaw

 

With its shovel-toothed lower tusks--which were used for scooping up vegetation from flooded swamps and lakebeds--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 two-ton Gomphotherium was remarkably widespread, taking advantage of various land bridges to colonize Africa and Eurasia from its original stomping grounds in North America.

10
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Moeritherium

moeritherium
Moeritherium. Wikimedia Commons

Moeritherium wasn't directly ancestral to modern elephants (it occupied a side branch that went extinct millions of years ago), but this pig-sized mammal possessed enough elephant-like traits to place it firmly in the pachyderm camp. See an in-depth profile of Moeritherium

11
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Palaeomastodon

palaeomastodon
Palaeomastodon. 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 two tons

Diet:

Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Long, flat skull; upper and lower tusks

 

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

12
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Phiomia

phiomia
Phiomia. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

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

Habitat:

Woodlands of northern Africa

Historical Epoch:

Late Eocene-Early Oligocene (37-30 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-sized, semi-aquatic herbivores sporting rudimentary tusks and trunks. Phiomia is interesting because it seems to have been more elephant-like than its close contemporary Moeritherium, a pig-sized creature with some hippopotamus-like features that nevertheless still counted as a prehistoric elephant. Whereas Moeritherium lived in swamps, Phiomia thrived on a diet of terrestrial vegetation, and probably evidenced the beginnings of a distinctly elephant-like trunk.

13
of 20

Phosphatherium

phosphatherium
Phosphatherium. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

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

Habitat:

Woodlands of Africa

Historical Epoch:

Middle-Late Paleocene (60-55 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About three feet long and 30-40 pounds

Diet:

Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Small size; narrow snout

 

If you happened across Phosphatherium 60 million years ago, during the Paleocene epoch, you probably couldn't tell whether it was fated to evolve into a horse, a hippo, or an elephant. The way paleontologists can tell that this dog-sized herbivore was actually a prehistoric elephant is by examining its teeth and the skeletal structure of its skull, both important anatomical clues to its proboscid lineage. Phosphatherium's immediate descendants of the Eocene epoch included Moeritherium, Barytherium and Phiomia, the last being the only such mammal that could recognizably be discerned as an ancestral elephant.

14
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Platybelodon

platybelodon
Platybelodon (Wikimedia Commons).

Platybelodon ("flat tusk") was a close relative of Amebelodon ("shovel-tusk"): both of these prehistoric elephants used their flattened lower tusks to dig up vegetation from flooded plains, and perhaps to dislodge loosely rooted trees. See an in-depth profile of Platybelodon

15
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Primelephas

primelephas
Primelephas (The Fossil Museum).

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 two tons

Diet:

Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Elephant-like appearance; tusks in upper and lower jaws

 

In evolutionary terms, Primelephas (Greek for "first elephant") was important for being the latest common ancestor of both 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 out of its lower jaw. As to the identify of Primelephas' immediate ancestor, that may have been Gomphotherium, which lived earlier in the Miocene epoch.

16
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Stegomastodon

stegomastodon
Stegomastodon. Wikimedia Commons

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," and it was a fairly typical prehistoric elephant of the late Pliocene epoch. See an in-depth profile of Stegomastodon

17
of 20

Stegotetrabelodon

stegotetrabelodon
Stegotetrabelodon. Mauricio Anton

Name:

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

Habitat:

Woodlands of central Asia

Historical Period:

Late Miocene (7-6 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About 15 feet long and 2-3 tons

Diet:

Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large size; tusks in upper and lower jaws

 

Its name doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but Stegotetrabelodon may yet 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 Stegotetrabelodon individuals, of various ages and sexes, dating from about seven million years ago (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!

18
of 20

The Straight-Tusked Elephant

straight-tusked elephant
The Straight-Tusked Elephant. Wikimedia Commons

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. See an in-depth profile of the Straight-Tusked Elephant

19
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Tetralophodon

tetralophodon
The four-cusped molar of Tetralophodon (Wikimedia Commons).

Name:

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

Habitat:

Woodlands worldwide

Historical Epoch:

Late Miocene-Pliocene (3-2 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About eight feet high and one 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 Tetralophodon's four tusks, which mark it as a "gomphothere" proboscid (and thus a close relative of the better-known Gomphotherium). Like Gomphotherium, 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.

20
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The Woolly Mammoth

woolly mammoth
Woolly Mammoth. Wikimedia Commons

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. See 10 Facts About the Woolly Mammoth