Elephant Evolution

October 15, 2016

Elephant Evolution and Adaptation

Forms of the elephant are believed to date back to 2,000 B.C. In these early times they were used to help with building due to their size. Many experts believe that the Mammoth which is now extinct is an early form of the elephant. They believe what we have on Earth now are direct decedents of them and that many of the changes including the loss of the thick hair occurred during the evolution process.

When we think about elephants we tend to always think of very large animals. However, there is also evidence to suggest that in the prehistoric period some of the species were the size of pigs and cows. DNA testing has proven beyond any doubt that they are indeed related to elephants. They are also distantly related to both dugongs, and hyraxes.

Another surprise to many is to find that elephants have some relationship to manatees which are commonly referred to a sea cows. It is believed that early on many species of elephants had two sets of tusks – one in the upper jaw and one in the lower jaw. What is very sad is that many experts believe at one time there were more than 350 species of elephants in the world. Now there are almost none at all left.

Early elephants were very different in their size and their appearance back then compared to what we see of them today. During the Ice Age the elephants likely had very thick hair like the mammoth. However, as the temperatures got warmer they didn’t have a need for it. This is why they got thicker skin and very little hair on it at all. This allowed them to live in regions where the temperatures were extremely hot. They have to be able to reduce their body temperatures and to regulate them. This can also account for the larger size of the ears; they use them as fans to cool down.

The length of the trunk as well as the ability to use it for so many different things is also something that happened for elephants through evolution. Their needs to be able to grasp things are one of the main reasons why this likely. While early elephants did have trunks they weren’t as versatile as what these animals have today.

It is believed that the ability adapt to a variety of different environments allowed elephants to evolve about 50 to 60 million years ago. Some of them lived in the rainforests while others resided in the desert. They are still considered to be on of the most adaptable animals in the world. However, with humans taking these areas away from them at an alarming rate there is a limit to what they are able to do and where they are able to survive today.

What has been noted by experts it that this evolution process takes place very slowly. This is why so many other species of elephants weren’t able to survive those necessary changes and they are no longer with us today. With that in mind humans have to understand that we can’t simple continue to do what we want to and expect that elephants are going to be able to change fast enough to adapt to all of it.

As you can see the evolution for elephants is one that is quite amazing. Even though we know quite a bit about these animals and their past, many questions still have to be answered. They have continually fought though for survival and due to the evolution process they have been quite successful for millions of years.



Michael Garstang. Elephant Sense and Sensibility. Academic Press, 2015.

Raman Sukumar. The Living Elephants: Evolutionary Ecology, Behaviour, and Conservation. Oxford University Press, 2003.



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