Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Early elephant was amphibious

A team of Oxford scientists has used isotope analysis of fossil tooth enamel to prove something long suspected about Moeritherium, one of the earliest kin of elephants: that they lived a semi-aquatic lifestyle similar to modern hippos. We already knew that earlier on the family line of proboscideans diverged from the sireneans (manatees and sea cows) who returned to the ocean just as the ceteaceans (whales) were doing. Now we have proof that the proboscideans hung around in the water a little longer before moving back onto the land. Modern elephants, by the way, like water and are excellent swimmers.

Sadly, this puts to death one of my favorite images. Old descriptions the Moeritherium sometimes describe its size as about the same as an English sheepdog. I always pictured them as little woolly mammoths happily frolicking on the shores of the Tethys Sea. Now, however, we think they probably looked a lot more like modern tapirs. Bummer.

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