Deinotherium – Bizarre Extinct Elephants
The elephant family may be represented by just a handful of species and sub-species today, but the fossil record is full of bizarre forms of prehistoric elephant. Normally it is the Mammoths and Mastodons, those leviathans of the Ice Age that get all the attention, but it is pleasing to note a number of European regional museums, especially those in Germany have exhibits dedicated to Deinotherium.
Deinotherium was a member of the elephant family, however, it split from the lineage that was to produce modern elephants very early in the Proboscidae evolutionary history. As a result, Deinotherium genera are not closely related to Mastodons, or Mammoths or even today’s African and Asian elephants.
Regarded as a “Stupid” Elephant
Modern elephants are regarded as being highly intelligent mammals by biologists. The skull of Deinotheres was flattened and lacked the domed cranium seen in extant species, so scientists have speculated that the Deinotheres were not particularly intelligent when compared to the modern elephants. However, there is very little scientific evidence regarding the size of the prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain associated with higher functions such as memory and planning. The European species of Deinotherium – Deinotherium giganteum had proportionately longer legs than other prehistoric elephants. Palaeontologists have speculated that this was an adaptation to a hotter, drier world with large herbivores having to migrate long distances to find suitable feeding grounds. The long legs of Deinotherium would have helped make it a very efficient walker.
Bizarre Tusks of the Deinotheres
The front part of the lower jaw was turned downwards and the two front incisors of Deinotherium formed two tusks that also curved downwards towards the ground in a hook-like appendage. Some of these incisors that formed tusks have been measured and recorded at over seventy-five centimetres in length. Deinotheres had trunks just like modern elephants but the trunk was proportionately shorter.
Palaeontologists still debate the purpose of these bizarre downward pointing tusks. Some scientists have suggested that these enlarged incisors were used to hook branches and pull them down so that the animal could feed more easily on leaves and fruit. Other researchers have put forward the theory that Deinotheres ate bark and the incisors could tear bark from trees. This may have given these large herbivores access to a foodstuff that other browsers and grazers could not exploit.
Analysis of the large teeth of these extinct elephants suggest that they did not eat gritty materials, such as grass pulled out of the earth, they probably preferred forest habitats and they browsed on soft fruits and leaves. There is fossil evidence to suggest that these elephants tended to live in woodland or forested areas, with other types of prehistoric elephant more closely related to modern African elephants living on the open savannah.
Out of Africa
The fossil record shows that, just like hominids, Deinotheres first evolved in Africa. This type of prehistoric elephant spread over a large geographical area, fossils of Deinotherium species have …