Ancient Elephant Teeth Evolved to Suit a Changing Diet
Elizabeth Gamillo, Discover Magazine
September 5, 2023
Fossilized cheek teeth have helped paleontologists learn a lot about what
ancient elephants ate millions of years ago. Turns out, those with a less
picky diet and more adaptability to changing environments survived. And
those who stuck to a grass-based diet went extinct when there were extreme
fluctuations in the climate.
“This supports the hypothesis of such regions as 'species-factories' where
evolutionary adaptation to changing environmental conditions first centered
around," said Juha Saarinen, a paleontologist at the University of Helsinki
and lead author, in a statement. Details on the study were published in
Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Chewing grass is more demanding on teeth than feeding on other types of
plants because of its high content of mineral grains called phytoliths in
the leaves. These minerals cause heavy abrasion on pearly whites.
Still, early proboscideans in the Early and Middle Miocene belonging to the
choerolophodon lineage, shifted to more grass-rich diets, causing a
changing appearance in their teeth.
About 10 million years ago, changing climates across East Africa had a
great effect on the evolution of proboscidean teeth. True elephants
(Elephantidae) especially, had changes like high-crowned, multi-ridged
“We were able to show that the strongest peaks of drying of the East
African climate during the last 7 million years (for example about 4 and 2
million years ago) correspond with evolutionary bursts in the increase of
tooth crown height and the number of ridges on the molar teeth,” said
Teeth Evolve in Extreme Environments
The find supports earlier suggestions that teeth traits adapt to extreme
environmental conditions rather than normal or average conditions.
When comparing past evidence of vegetation and the diets of elephants from
seven million years ago, scientists found an increase of grasslands and
grass-feeding elephants with specialized teeth designed to grind down
grasses. However, this changed in the last 100,000 years because of
fluctuations in the global climate during the late Pleistocene. During this
time, alternating humid and arid climatic cycles were more rhythmic and in
greater magnitude than earlier in this time period.
Eventually, only the modern African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana)
with less specialized teeth and a more versatile diet survived.
Elephants of Today
A modern elephants’ ability to thrive in various environments and
versatility to eat multiple types of food might also explain the Asian
elephants (Elephas maxius) survival in Asia, and the African forest
elephant’s (Loxodonta cyclotis) capability of finding a habitat in more
forested areas of Central and Western Africa.
The comparison of dental fossils of various species and the structures
found on the teeth explained this adaptation. The research included the
number of enamel loops, enamel thickness and enamel folding. All these
traits are considered adaptations for resisting abrasion.
“The ecologically quite versatile modern elephants were the sole survivors
of the tumultuous climate changes of the late Pleistocene. Now it’s us
humans that threaten the last surviving species of this ecologically
important group of animals, and we should work hard to keep them from being
lost forever,” said Saarinen.