Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Elephant's Missing Link

A pig-sized, tusked creature that roamed the earth some 27 million years ago represents a missing link between the oldest known relatives of elephants and the more recent group from which modern elephants descended.

The teeth of the newly described Eritreum melakeghebrekristosi.

From the U of Michigan press release:

The group's findings, to be published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that mastodons and the ancestors of elephants originated in Africa, in contrast to mammals such as rhinos, giraffes and antelopes, which had their origins in Europe and Asia and migrated into Africa. The dating of the new fossil, discovered in the East African country of Eritrea, also pushes the origins of elephants and mastodons five million years farther into the past than previous records, said Martin Sanders, lead author.

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After 25 million years ago, larger proboscideans such as mastodons and gomphotheres—the ancestors of modern elephants—dominated the scene. Elephant-sized, with long tusks and trunks, these advanced proboscidans had more complex teeth that emerged more slowly, so that each quadrant of the mouth had only one or two functional teeth in place at a time.

"The new fossil from Eritrea is important because it shows aspects of dental anatomy in common with the advanced group, including molars with more cusps and complex crowns and the delayed maturation and emergence of molars," said Sanders. But the new fossil also has characteristics in common with palaeomastodonts, namely smaller body size and a jaw structure that suggests shorter tusks and trunk.