Monday, September 28, 2009

True elephants

I'm talked about this before, but I was re-reading some info on these guys, and was struck again by the accident of semantic history that calls mammoths something other than elephants. True elephants are the descendents of Primelephas; the members of the Elephantidae family, and the taxonomically dubious Elephantinae subfamily, and they include four genera (counting Primelephas itself) Elephas, Loxodonta and Mammuthus. Elephas had up to twenty species at one point, but today is represented solely by the Asian elephant, with several subspecies. Loxodonta is only known from two species, both of which survive, and which are the African elephants. Mammuthus is known from possibly as many as 12 species, but more likely it's only about half that, as overspeciation of fossils comes about when paletontologists don't take into account sexual, regional or even merely individual variation within a single species. Mammuthus is, of course, the mammoth.

I've attached below a picture of the Columbian, Jeffersonian, or Imperial mammoth (in my opinion, all three are the same species), and looking at it, it's easy to see how it's really just "the American elephant." Compared to Elephas or Loxodonta, it's got a more sloped back, a smaller domed back to its head, and larger tusks, but is otherwise, absolutely a member of the same immediate family.

The Stegodons, on the other hand, are slightly different animals; still members of the Elephantidae family, but part of a different subfamily. Today, if we were to see a living Stegodon or other related animal, we'd think it was an elephant with a few odd features, notably extremely long, straight tusks.

Sigh. Once again I regret the accident of history that allowed me to live in North America after more than half of its fascinating megafauna went extinct.

No comments: