Feeding habits of ancient elephants uncovered from grass fragments stuck in their teeth

Related Articles

Related Articles

A new study, led by scientists at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing, China, including University of Bristol PhD student Zhang Hanwen, examined the feeding habits of ancient elephant relatives that inhabited Central Asia some 17 million years ago.

Professor Wang Shiqi from IVPP, the study’s senior author, said: “We found ancient elephant teeth in the Junggar Basin, in China’s far North West and they belong to two species, Gomphotherium connexum, and the larger G. steinheimense.”

Zhang Hanwen, from Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences, added: “Gomphotherium was most obvi-ously different from modern elephants by its very long lower jaw that still had lower tusks.

“It also had a shorter, more elongate, barrel-like body shape compared to modern elephants. In essence, a small elephant with short legs.”

Professor Wang explained: “Our study of their evolution shows that Gomphotherium connexum became extinct, but G. steinheimense was part of the line that eventually gave rise to the modern elephants.”

To understand if feeding preference was playing a role in survival and extinction of these ele-phants, Dr Wu Yan of IVPP, the study’s lead author, analysed tiny remnants of plant matter found stuck to the fossil teeth, called phytoliths.


Subscribe to more articles like this by following our Google Discovery feed - Click the follow button on your desktop or the star button on mobile. Subscribe

About 30 percent of the phytoliths extracted from the teeth of G. connexum are from soft foliage, whereas another 50 percent or so comes from grasses.

Dr Wu said: “Given that foliage naturally produces far less phytoliths than grasses, this indicates that G. connexum was mainly feeding on foliage, maybe a generalist feeder of all kinds of plant matter.

“When I examined the phytoliths extracted from the cheek teeth of G. steinheimense, I saw a very different pattern – grass phytoliths comprise roughly 85 percent of the total, suggesting this spe-cies was perhaps primarily a grazer 17 million years ago.”

To confirm these results, the team also examined tiny wear patterns on the fossil tooth surfaces called microwear.

Zhang Hanwen added: “Now things start to get interesting. When our team analysed fossil pollen samples associated with the sediments where the Gomphotherium teeth were found, we realised that woodlands were rapidly transforming into semi-arid savannahs when the two species lived together.

“By adopting a much more grass-based diet, G. steinheimense was apparently responding better to this habitat change than G. connexum.

Gomphotherium had primitive dentition consisting of low molar crowns, and numerous conical cusps arranged in few transverse enamel ridges on the chewing surface of the teeth.

“This was adapted for feeding on leaves, the primitive diet. But later on, the lineage leading to modern elephants and the extinct mammoths evolved an increased number of enamel ridges, and these eventually became densely packed tooth plates for shearing tough vegetation.

“Our new evidence shows that the diet switch from leaves to grass happened long before the ana-tomical switch in tooth shape.”

UNIVERSITY OF BRISTOL

Header Skeleton of Gomphotherium productum – Image Credit : Ryan Somma

- Advertisement -

Download the HeritageDaily mobile application on iOS and Android

More on this topic

LATEST NEWS

Study Suggests the Mystery of The Lost Colony of Roanoke Solved

The Roanoke Colony refers to two colonisation attempts by Sir Walter Raleigh to establish a permanent English settlement in North America.

Drones Map High Plateaus Basin in Moroccan Atlas to Understand Human Evolution

Researchers from the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) have been using drones to create high-resolution aerial images and topographies to compile maps of the High Plateaus Basin in Moroccan Atlas.

The Kerguelen Oceanic Plateau Sheds Light on the Formation of Continents

How did the continents form? Although to a certain extent this remains an open question, the oceanic plateau of the Kerguelen Islands may well provide part of the answer, according to a French-Australian team led by the Géosciences Environnement Toulouse laboratory.

Ancient Societies Hold Lessons for Modern Cities

Today's modern cities, from Denver to Dubai, could learn a thing or two from the ancient Pueblo communities that once stretched across the southwestern United States. For starters, the more people live together, the better the living standards.

Volubilis – The Ancient Berber City

Volubilis is an archaeological site and ancient Berber city that many archaeologists believe was the capital of the Kingdom of Mauretania.

Pella – Birthplace of Alexander The Great

Pella is an archaeological site and the historical capital of the ancient kingdom of Macedon.

New Argentine fossils uncover history of celebrated conifer group

Newly unearthed, surprisingly well-preserved conifer fossils from Patagonia, Argentina, show that an endangered and celebrated group of tropical West Pacific trees has roots in the ancient supercontinent that once comprised Australia, Antarctica and South America, according to an international team of researchers.

High-tech CT reveals ancient evolutionary adaptation of extinct crocodylomorphs

The tree of life is rich in examples of species that changed from living in water to a land-based existence.

Fish fossils become buried treasure

Rare metals crucial to green industries turn out to have a surprising origin. Ancient global climate change and certain kinds of undersea geology drove fish populations to specific locations.

Archaeologists Discover Viking Toilet in Denmark

Archaeologists excavating a settlement on the Stevns Peninsula in Denmark suggests they have discovered a toilet from the Viking Age.

Popular stories