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 been found in Africa, Europe and as far east as Turkey. The genus was first described and accepted into scientific literature in 1845. Prior to this the fossils of Deinotherium were relatively well-known as many fossils had been found in Early Pliocene aged deposits in western Germany and added to the natural history collections of various wealthy individuals (including Royal families) in European society. It was the German scientist Johann Jakob Kaup who was responsible for scientifically naming and describing the first Deinotherium fossils to be extensively studied. He erected the name Deinotherium (it means terrible beasts) in 1829, a time when the first huge dinosaurs were just becoming known to science.
Largest Land Animals of the Miocene Epoch
European specimens, especially those found in western Germany suggest that some of these prehistoric elephants were amongst the largest land living creatures of the Late Miocene epoch. An almost complete skull was found in 1836 and given to Johann Jakob Kaup to study. He deduced that these extinct elephants were much bigger than the largest species of elephant alive today. A shoulder height of nearly five metres was estimated and a body mass in excess of 14,000 kilogrammes proposed. Although these animals became more rare as the Miocene gave way to the Pliocene Epoch, it is thought that early hominids would have been familiar with these bizarre elephants as Deinotherium fossils have been found in the same fossil bearing strata as early hominid fossils such as Australopithecines.
Extinct by the Pleistocene Epoch
Deinotherium fossils become rarer and rarer in rock of Upper Pliocene epoch age. This suggest that these elephants were gradually dying out. The very last of the Deinotheres, lived in Africa (western Kenya), these fossils date from the early Pleistocene around one million years ago. There seems to have been a general extinction of mega fauna in the early Pleistocene epoch, for the Deinotheres and their bizarre downward turned tusks this was the end of the line.