Elephant Beginnings



The ancestors of modern elephants first appear in the fossil record during the Eocene Period, or about 45 to 55 million years ago. Like the earliest ancestors of many other animals, the first elephant — Moeritherium (meer-uh-THEER-ee-um) — was quite different from today's elephant. It was about two feet tall and had no trunk.



MAMMOTH Gradually, possibly in response to the earth's cooling temperatures, the descendants of Moeritherium grew larger in size and developed the nose-upper lip combination that makes elephants so unique today. The arrangement of trunk and tusks took several forms over the generations, many quite different from today's modern elephant. Biologists believe the trunk may have developed to allow the large animals with very short necks to reach food and water easily. To date, more than 150 different species of elephants have been catalogued, including the hairy mammoths and mastodons.

In 1997, a nomadic reindeer herder spotted a mammoth tusk sticking out of the ground while herding raindeer. It was found that the entire mammoth was encased in ice. Scientists excavated it and it was flown 200 miles by helicopter from the Taimyr Peninsula in Siberia to the city of Khatanga where it will be kept frozen in an underground tunnel during which extensive research will take place.

Discovery.com has created an interactive section children will enjoy exploring.

The modern world has two surviving elephant species: the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), and the African elephant (Loxodonta africana). Learn more about these magnificent creatures.

Among Asian elephants there are four subspecies: Indian, Ceylon, Siumatran, and Malaysian. These are distinguished by physical traits related to their geographic location. For example, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) elephants tend to have larger ears, which are useful for regulating body temperature in the hotter climate of Sri Lanka.

Article contributed by Judy Jones, 1997.

Experts maintain that "The Elephant Can Never Be Fully Domesticated" — Feb. 7, 2003