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Five Amazingly Large Prehistoric Proboscideans

Updated on June 10, 2016
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Slaine M. Logan hails from the state of North Carolina. She has long been an avid researcher, product reviewer, and health fanatic.

A bull African Bush Elephant. While the largest ever recorded weighed more than 10 tons, the males of this species average six tons.
A bull African Bush Elephant. While the largest ever recorded weighed more than 10 tons, the males of this species average six tons. | Source

When Life was Larger

Though the Pleistocene epoch ended almost 12,000 years ago, this stage of Earth's prehistory, along with the preceding Pliocene and Miocene, has made a lasting impression on us. In science, in art, and perhaps just as importantly, in our imaginations. Curiosity of life that came before has even gone so far as to lead to movements to bring some of it back. For example, de-extinction, or resurrection science, has been expanding, with one of the lead candidates being the wooly mammoth. Scientists in several countries have been working on sequencing their genome for many years, and some have started to predict that a mammoth could be born to a surrogate elephant as soon as a decade away.

Extreme is what tends to peak curiosity and awe, especially when it comes to size. That is why when one stands in proximity to an elephant, it tends to make an impression upon them. The African Bush Elephant (Loxodonta africana) is currently the largest terrestrial animal in the world. With adult males averaging six tons, and females approximately two-thirds that mass, they dwarf any land-dwelling animal in their presence.

However, as hard as it may be to believe, today's elephants would look small compared to several of their predecessors that unfortunately became extinct millions to hundreds of thousands of years ago. At that time, the order Proboscidea was far more diverse, with exponentially more species than the three that remain today. Mammoths, mastodons, deinotheres, and all other families are extinct, as well as the majority of the elephant species. Some of these species could make a living elephant feel the same way we do when we stand next to them.

Mastodons were typically shorter than mammoths, elephants, and deinotheres, however they made up for it in length and robustness.
Mastodons were typically shorter than mammoths, elephants, and deinotheres, however they made up for it in length and robustness. | Source

Deinotherium Thraceiensis

Out of all the proboscidea, deinotheres were most likely the least diverse from current knowledge. The last of this family died out approximately one million years ago, during the early Pleistocene period.

Deinotheres were characterized by a somewhat flatter head than mammoths, mastodons, or elephants. Most of the species were taller than living elephants. They also had a very distinctive feature relating to their tusks. Instead of protruding out of their upper jaw, they were curved downward, and extended from the front of their mandible.

The largest of this family known from substantial material is a species known as Deinotherium thraceiensis. In terms of appearance, they differed from the other deinotheres in that their posterior end was markedly higher than their shoulder and head. It was also substantially wider. The remains from this animal are estimated to stand over 13 feet at the shoulder, and weigh approximately 13.2 tonnes (14.5 tons). This is close to two and a half times the size of an average adult bull African Bush Elephant.

There have yet been remains from other specimens from more fragmentary or lesser material that are even larger, with one coming from an animal thought to weigh as much as 17.4 tonnes (19.1 tons).

Mammuthus Trogontherii (Steppe Mammoth)

Mammoths are characterized in proboscidea by their distinctive dentition, along with their large, substantially curved tusks, which can measure over 15 feet in some specimens. Though the woolly mammoth is easily recognized in art by their thick hair, all species of mammoths were thought to be somewhat hairier than their extant elephant cousins. Of all the extinct members of proboscidea, the mammoths are the most recent genera to die out, with the last woolly mammoths existing up until less than 10,000 years ago.

If something is said to be mammoth sized or of mammoth proportions, that is in a colloquial sense saying that it is huge. When someone says the word mammoth in the context of animals, most people think of the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius). Thus, a common misconception of the woolly mammoth is that they are often thought to be much larger than they really were. The northern variation were around the same size as the African Bush Elephant, with the European form being only slightly larger. There were a few species of mammoths that were far larger. The largest known from current material was the steppe mammoth, Mammuthus trogontherii.

This species has fewer remains than other mammoths, with the majority only being known from fossilized teeth. However, there have also been several fragmentary bones recovered, as well as at least one relatively complete female specimen. Reasonable extrapolations from teeth and isolated bones of others that are much larger than the female suggest an average size of about 11 tons for bulls, with the fossils of the largest recovered specimen being 14.3 tonnes (15.7 tons).

Mammut (Zygolophodon) Borsoni, Borson's Mastodon

Mastodon means "breast tooth." Like all proboscidea, dentition arrangement, along with shape, are variables used for characterization. Other notable characteristics of the mastodon are the comparatively squatter build in proportion to their weight. A mastodon that is of equal height to either a mammoth or elephant will outweigh the latter two, due to their comparatively wider torso. The tusks of various mastodon's species vary quite a bit in length and proportion, and their curvature is generally more than that of an elephant's, and less than a mammoth's.

The largest known species of this family is called the Borson's Mammoth, Mammut borsoni, and sometimes Zygolophodon borsoni. One of the most remarkable things about this species are their tusks. They had relatively straighter tusks than most mastodons, and they could reach over five meters long. There is no other known species of proboscidea that has the tip of the tusk at that distance from the head of the animal.

Not to be outdone by their own tusks, the mass of this mammal is formidable. Two male specimens were found between the ages of 30-40 years old, with each estimated to weigh between 14-16 tonnes (15.4-17.6 tons).

An artist's reconstruction of a steppe mammoth.  Some members of this species have been estimated to weigh nearly 16 tons.
An artist's reconstruction of a steppe mammoth. Some members of this species have been estimated to weigh nearly 16 tons. | Source

Straight-Tusked Elephant (Palaeoloxodon Antiquus)

The genus Palaeoloxodon consists of several species that have a wide range in size, including some of the largest known species of proboscidea of all time. They are more closely related to today's Asian elephant, Elephas maximus, than to either species of African elephant.

Not all, but a few of these species have straight tusks, as the informal name of Palaeoloxodon antiquus denotes, most being of relatively average proportional length to their respective body sizes. They were prominent around Europe and Asia, and some even inhabited islands such as Malta. The last known species died out approximately 30,000 years ago.

During the Pleistocene, Palaeoloxodon antiquus inhabited European areas until their extinction 50,000 years ago. Tall and having a wide, rather than deep build, this species of elephant is thought to average around 11.8 tonnes (13 tons), while larger individuals reaching 14 feet high at the shoulder and attaining a mass of 15.5 tonnes (17 tons).

Asian Straight-Tusked Elephant (Palaeoloxodon Namadicus)

This species from the Palaeoloxodon genus of true elephants of the straight tusked type is known from very fragmentary remains of femurs, along with a single specimen of a somewhat more complete skeleton. However, upon their examinations, they are sufficient to give many paleontologists enough confidence to label them the largest known land mammal of all time, surpassing Paraceratherium transouralicum. While Palaeoloxodon antiquus was located in Europe, this larger species is thought to have spanned the region of East Asia.

Extrapolated from the sizes of the other Palaeoloxodon types, the largest femur from this species belonged to an animal estimated to weigh 22 tonnes (24.2 tons), along with a height of 16 feet at the shoulder.

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    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 14 months ago from Australia

      Great hub about these animals - to think that mammoths became extinct only so relatively recently!