In this episode, we take a deep dive into the largest land mammals that have ever lived. We’ll explore the handful of modern species and their extraordinarily diverse evolutionary history. From mammoths to mastodons, shovel-tuskers to miniature island-dwellers, the fossil record is full of bizarre elephants.
This group got their start in Africa just under 60 million years ago. The earliest proboscideans didn’t look much like elephants. Many, like Eritherium, probably lacked tusks and only a few may have had the beginnings of a trunk. These were also quite small, often no taller than about a meter (3 or 4 feet).
During the Miocene, as Africa and Eurasia grew closer, proboscideans began to spread across the Old World. Here, we start to see larger and more diverse groups. They start to look like elephants!
Among the most bizzare proboscideans were the aptly named “shovel-tusked elephants.” This included gompotheres and amebelodontids. Thanks to analysis of the wear patterns on those tusks, scientists suspect the tusks weren’t really being used for digging (as was once thought!) but that they used their specialized lower tusks for stripping vegetation off trees.
As the Miocene continues into the Pliocene we see the first proboscideans make it into North America, as well as the rise of the Elephantids, which include modern elephants and mammoths.
Believe it or not, several extinct proboscidean groups made it to islands, where they experienced insular dwarfism. These dwarf elephants ranged from 7 feet tall all the was down to under 3 feet tall. On Wrangel Island, a dwarf population of woolly mammoths survived up until a mere 4,300 years ago.