Age of Mammals

Evolution of elephants

Deinotherium, a Miocene elephantDeinotherium, a Miocene elephant The two species of elephant alive today—the African and Asian—are all that remain of a once large and magnificent family of animals. An early elephant was Moeritherium, a pig-sized animal that rooted around in North African swamps during the Eocene Epoch, 37 million years ago. As elephants evolved they tended to grow bigger. Their legs needed to be long and pillar-like to support their massive weight. At the same time, the elephants' mouths became further and further from the ground. To take up water and food, the animals needed longer and longer trunks.

Elephant family tree

The elephant family treeThe elephant family treeA very early ancestor was Moeritherium, a swamp-dwelling, pig-sized animal. Palaeomastodon’s legs needed to be long and pillar-like to support its massive weight, and a trunk became necessary to take up water and food. Huge animals like Gomphotherium, together with others that had weirdly shaped tusks like Platybelodon, spread to different parts of the world during the Miocene. Steppe mammoths more than 4 metres (13 feet) tall roamed the tundras of Europe during the Ice Ages.


First elephants

The first elephants were more like pygmy hippos than elephants. Although its trunk was only short and stubby, like that of a modern tapir, Moeritherium did have several elephant-like features: a long, low skull, strong neck muscles and tusks—a small pair on both upper and lower jaws. Living alongside Moeritherium was Palaeomastodon, the first mastodon, a forest browser, and a much larger animal. It had four tusks and a short, slightly flattened trunk.


Trunk and tusks

Gomphotherium, a large, long-tusked elephant, evolved around 13 million years ago. Its heavy head was supported by a short neck with powerful neck muscles. But it could only reach the ground to eat and drink by using its trunk. This long, flexible “arm” could pick up food and water and transfer both to its mouth. Gomphotherium had four tusks. It probably used them to carry bundles of leaves.

A modern elephant and its ancestorsA modern elephant and its ancestorsPlatybelodon, living about 8 million years ago, lived off soft water plants from the swamps. It used its lower, shovel-like tusks to dig them up from the muddy river bottom. Its flat trunk probably worked as a scoop.

Woolly mammothWoolly mammoth


The steppe mammoth lived in the middle of the Ice Ages, roaming across cold, bleak grasslands eating coarse grasses. It was the first elephant to develop a hairy coat. Its spiral tusks were 5 metres (16 feet) long. The steppe mammoth, which evolved around 600,000 years ago was the largest of all the mammoths.

Woolly mammoths, with their shaggy coats and layers of body fat, were well suited to the cold, summer-less environments of the far north. They evolved around 200,000 years ago and roamed the northern tundra lands until about 10,000 years ago—although a small number survived on a Siberian island until just 3500 years ago. Complete carcasses, preserved in ice, are still found today. Climatic change probably finished them, but they may have been hunted to extinction by humans.

Woolly mammothsWoolly mammoths

ConsultantChris Jarvis

See also in Prehistoric

See also in Life

The earliest known elephant is Eritherium azzouzorum, which lived in North Africa about 60 million years ago. It probably weighed about 4–5 kg (8–11 lb), about the weight of a small terrier dog.

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