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This page explains how elephants evolved around the world. Find out about the distribution of elephants in Africa today.
Elephants are part of the mammal order Proboscidea and the family Elephantidae. The Proboscidea order is a diverse group of animals including elephants, hyraxes and sea cows. The Elephantidae family contains two species, Loxodonta africana (the African elephant) and Elephas maximus (the Asian elephant). Find out how these two species differ.
There is much debate over whether all African elephants are from one species. Strong genetic evidence suggests that there may be two, or even three, different species within the population as a whole. The current scientific classification breaks the African elephant down into two sub species, Loxodonta africana cyclotis (the forest elephant) and Loxodonta africana africana (the savanna elephant). Work is continuing, however, and this classification may be changed in future.
It is thought that modern African and Indian elephants may have originated in Asia but the earliest fossils of the Proboscidea order have been found in Africa. The oldest, Moeritherium, which lived about 35-50 million years ago during what is called the Eocene period was named after Egypt's Lake Moeris where its remains were found. About a metre tall, Moeritherium was relatively small with no trunk. It had enlarged incisor teeth (like small elephant tusks) in both jaws. Living in shallow water, it is thought to have been amphibious. It is not a direct ancestor of elephants, as it has no known descendants.
Later Proboscidean fossils show that, although larger than Moeritherium, the early Palaeomastodon and Gomphotherium bore little resemblance to modern elephants. However, as the Proboscidean species evolved, the animals grew larger with longer limbs, their skull, teeth and tusk size increased and a mobile trunk developed. Primelephas and the extinct relatives of modern elephants, Mammuthus (mammoths), Mammut (mastodons), Anancus and Stegodon were all large animals with pillar-like legs, tusks and an extended flexible nose.
Proboscidean fossils have been found in Africa, Asia, Europe and North and South America. They show that the ancestors of modern elephants moved around the globe.
- The earliest Palaomastodon remains have been found in Eocene (35-50 million years old) deposits in Egypt.
During the early Miocene epoch (over 5 million years ago) some species spread into Asia and from there to North America. Gomphotherium fossils have been found in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America.
The elephant-like Primelephas roamed Eastern and Central Africa during the late Miocene and early Pliocene (7-2 million years ago).
Descendents of Gompthotherium entered South America in the Pliocene (more than 2 million years ago).
The Elephantidae family contains today's living elephants along with the extinct mammoths. Reaching over 4m in height, many with very curved tusks, mammoths were widespread in Europe, northern Asia, North America and arctic regions. They originated about 1.6million years ago. The last mammoth species became extinct about 10,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. It is unclear whether they were driven to extinction by climatic factors or as a consequence of hunting by early man.