New Research Tracks Evolution of Extinct Straight-Tusked Elephants

Friday, January 24, 2020

Reconstructed life appearance of the straight-tusked elephant Palaeoloxodon antiquus in (top) side and (bottom) frontal view, based on remains uncovered from the Neumark-Nord 1 site in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany. Image credit: Hsu Shu-yu.

Palaeoloxodon is an extinct genus of straight-tusked elephants that lived throughout Europe and Asia during the Pleistocene and Holocene. It migrated out of Africa about 800,000 years ago and divided into many species, with distinct species in Japan, Central Asia and Europe, and even dwarf species on some Mediterranean islands. A new study, published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews, enhances our understanding of all these Palaeoloxodon species.

The most intriguing feature of the straight-tusked elephant, apart from its absolutely enormous size, is the massive, headband-like crest on the skull roof — the so-called parieto-occipital crest — which projects down the forehead.

When the celebrated Victorian Scottish geologist Hugh Falconer studied the first fossil skull of Palaeoloxodon found in India, he remarked that the head seemed ‘so grotesquely constructed that it looks the caricature of an elephant’s head in a periwig.’

For a long time, palaeontologists thought that Palaeoloxodon antiquus from Europe had a rather slenderly built skull roof crest; whereas the Indian species Palaeoloxodon namadicus is characterised by an extremely robust skull crest that extends near to the base of the trunk from the top of the skull.

But some Palaeoloxodon skulls, found in Italy and Germany, with almost the same exaggerated skull crest as the Indian form, led a few scientists into suspecting these might all be single species.

“Just like modern elephants, Palaeoloxodon went through six sets of teeth in their lifetimes. This means we can tell the age of any individual with confidence by looking at its fossilised teeth,” said Dr. Hanwen Zhang, a paleontologist in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol and the Department of Earth Sciences at UK’s Natural History Museum.

“When we looked at a series of skulls from Italy, Germany and India, we found a consistent pattern: the skull crest developed from being very small, not protruding beyond the forehead in juveniles to being larger and more protruding in young adults, eventually becoming very stout in aged adults.”

“As I plotted various skull and limb bone measurements for these incredible prehistoric elephants, it became clear that the Indian Palaeoloxodon form a distinct group from the European ones; even in European skulls with quite pronounced crests, the skull roof never becomes as thickened as in the Indian specimens,” said Dr. Asier Larramendi, an independent researcher from Spain.

“This tells us we once had two separate species of these enormous elephants in Europe and India.”

“Besides the funky skull roof crest, the head of the straight-tusked elephant is also remarkable for being huge, the largest of any elephant ever — some 1.4 m (4.5 feet) from the top of the skull roof to the base of the tusk sheaths.”

“Therefore, the skull crest probably evolved to provide additional attachment areas for extra neck muscles, so the animal did not fall on its head.”

“Having gotten to the bottom of the antiquus/namadicus problem, it then became apparent that other fossil skull materials found in Asia and East Africa represent distinct, possibly more evolutionarily conservative species of Palaeoloxodon,” Dr. Zhang said.

“Even in fully mature adults with the last set of teeth in place, the skull roof crest remains comparatively unpronounced. This is the case with the earliest Palaeoloxodon from Africa, some Asian species retained this condition.”


Asier Larramendi et al. 2020. The evolution of Palaeoloxodon skull structure: Disentangling phylogenetic, sexually dimorphic, ontogenetic, and allometric morphological signals. Quaternary Science Reviews 229: 106090; doi: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2019.106090