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The Proboscidea
Elephants, mammoths, mastodons

African Elephant
The African Elephant, Loxodonta africana.
Proboscideans are an order of eutherian mammals that include the living elephants as well as the extinct mammoths, mastodons and gomphotheres. All members of the order have a proboscis or trunk that they use to grab food and water. They use their trunks like humans use their hands, with an upper and lower lip to grab food. They also have specialized teeth to browse and graze on vegetation as well as tusks (second upper incisors) used to scrape bark off trees, dig on the ground for food, and to fight.

Today there are two living species of Proboscidea: the African elephant Loxodonta africanus and the Asian elephant Elephas maximus. However, in the past, there were many members of the order.

Early relatives
Ancestral proboscidean distribution
Ancestral proboscidean distribution.
The first true proboscideans evolved and diversified in Africa during the Paleogene (65.5 to 23 mya). Phosphatherium escuilliei is the earliest recognized proboscidean from the late Paleocene (58 mya) of Morocco. This ancestral proboscidean was less than one meter tall at the shoulder. Moeritherium, another early proboscidean, was small—about the size of a large pig—and probably did not have a trunk, although it is thought that it had a mobile upper lip. Fossil remains of two Moeritherium species (M. lyonsi and M. trigodon) have been found in Egypt, Algeria, Libya and Senegal in late Eocene to early Oligocene rocks.

Other ancestral proboscideans include Numidotherium, Barytherium, and Deinotherium. Remains of these early proboscideans were recovered in northern Africa along what was once the southern shore of the Tethys Sea during the Oligocene. Numidotherium stood about 1.5 meters tall and had a trunk about the length of a tapir's. Many remains of this early proboscidean have come from middle Eocene deposits in Algeria. There were two species of Barytherium. One species was large, weighing about 3–4 tons and standing 2.5–3 meters high. The second species was smaller, about the size of Moeritherium. Barytherium lived from the late Eocene to the early Oligocene. Deinotherium had a fully functioning trunk and downward recurving tusks in the lower jaw, a trait present in no other proboscidean. It is thought that they used the tusks for manipulating their short trunk or for mate recognition, but not for digging. They had brachydont cheek teeth ideal for shearing soft foliage. Deinotheres roamed the planet for 20 million years, living in Africa, Europe and Asia beginning in the middle Miocene; they persisted in Eurasia until the Pliocene and in Africa until just over one million years ago.

It is hypothesized that anthracobunids (Anthracobune) belong to the proboscidean order, or at the very least, are closely related to it. They lived in southern Asia during the early Eocene. If they do belong to Proboscidea, their presence in Asia broadens the distribution of early Proboscidea.

Proboscidea phylogeny

Additional UCMP resources

Other resources

The following sources were used in researching all the Proboscidea pages:

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  • Mol, D., L.D. Agenbroad, and J.I. Mead. 1993. Mammoths. The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota, Inc.
  • Orlando, L., C. Hänni, and C.J. Douady. 2007. Mammoth and elephant phylogenetic relationships: Mammut americanum, the missing outgroup. Evolutionary Bioinformatics 3:45-51.
  • Ozawa, T., S. Hayashi, and V.M. Mikhelson. 1997. Phylogenetic position of mammoth and Steller's sea cow within Tethytheria demonstrated by mitochondrial DNA sequences. Journal of Molecular Evolution 44:406-413.
  • Prado, J.L., and M.T. Alberdi. 2008. A cladistic analysis among trilophodont gomphotheres (Mammalia, Probosicdea) with special attention to the South American genera. Palaeontology 51(4):903-915.
  • Saegusa, H. 1996. Stegodontidae: Evolutionary relationships. Pp.178-192 in J. Shoshani and P. Tassy (eds.), The Proboscidea: Evolution and Palaeoecology of Elephants and Their Relatives. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Saegusa, H., Y. Thasod, B. Ratanasthien. 2005. Notes on Asian stegodontids. Quaternary International 126-128:31-48.
  • Shoshani, J. 1998. Understanding proboscidean evolution: A formidable task. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 13(12):480-487.
  • Shoshani, J., and P. Tassy (eds.). 1996. The Proboscidea: Evolution and Palaeoecology of Elephants and Their Relatives. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 472 pp.
  • Shoshani, J., E.M. Golenberg, and H. Yang. 1998. Elephantidae phylogeny: Morphological versus molecular results. Acta Theriologica (Suppl. 5) 89-122.
  • Shoshani, J., W.J. Sanders, and P. Tassy. 2001. Elephants and other Proboscideans: A summary of recent findings and new taxonomic suggestions. The World of Elephants — International Congress, Rome 2001. Pp. 676-679.
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Original Proboscidea page was by Brian R. Speer, 7/8/1997; Dave Smith made minor design changes and link updates, 7/15/2005; major new content researched and written by Kaitlin Maguire, 11/2010; elephant photo by Gerald and Buff Corsi, © 2002 California Academy of Sciences