|Name Meaning||Terrible Beast||Height||3.59–4.01 meters (11.8–13.2 feet)|
|Pronunciation||Dy-noh-thee-ree-um||Length||10–12 meters (33–39 feet)|
|Era||Cenozoic – Neogene Period||Weight||8.8-13.2 metric tons (17,600-26,400 lbs)|
|Classification||Mammalia, Proboscidea & Deinotheriidae||Location||East Africa, Southern and Western Europe, South and East Asia|
The Deinotherium was a prehistoric version of the modern elephant, except that it was called a proboscidean and was much larger than the largest extant elephant.
Besides its fascinating size, another characteristic distinguishes the Deinotherium from other elephants and elephant-like creatures – its tusks.
They were large, grew from the lower incisors, and pointed either downward or backward.
Another remarkable aspect to mention when discussing Deinotherium is its wide distribution and extensive timeline. Keep reading to discover more!
The Deinotherium was an elephant-like mammal, although certain characteristics can help you distinguish the two.
This ancient mammal had slender, pillar-like limbs, with the forelimbs probably being slightly longer than the hind limbs.
The Deinotherium had a relatively long neck compared to elephants but a shorter neck than other browsers.
Additionally, its toes were longer than elephant toes but probably not as robust.
The Deinotherium skull was short and low. It was noticeably flattened on top.
This makes it stand out among other proboscideans, as most had a high, domed forehead.
The lower jaw-bone was remarkably long and curved downward.
Two backward-curving tusks grew from the lower jaw, more precisely from the lower incisors.
This is another thing that distinguishes the Deinotherium from elephants, which typically have upward-curving tusks that grow from the upper incisors.
Not all Deinotherium tusks have exactly the same shape.
Some were so curved that they almost formed a semicircle, while others grew vertically downward.
One thing the Deinotherium and the modern elephant have in common is the large trunk, which in the Deinotherium is suggested by the size and shape of the external nares.
However, scientists still aren’t sure of the exact shape of the trunk.
Multiple theories have been proposed, but none have been scientifically confirmed.
Considering its body shape and short neck, specialists suspect the trunk must’ve been long enough to facilitate drinking.
The exact maximum size of the Deinotherium remains unknown, as these creatures likely grew continuously throughout their lives.
Additionally, since the genus consists of several recognized species, they may have differed in size.
Based on the discovered specimens, scientists proposed several numbers.
Two D. giganteum specimens were approximately 3.63–4 meters (11.9–13.1 feet) tall at the shoulder.
They weighed 8.8–12 metric tons (9.7–13.2 short tons).
Imagine that only a Deinotherium tusk could reach a length of 1.4 meters (4.6 feet), while the skull measured approximately 1.2–1.3 meters (3.9-4.3 feet)!
As such, while scientists aren’t sure whether this is the maximum size of the Deinotherium, we know they were undoubtedly giants!
D. proavum was likely similar in size, reaching 3.59 meters (11.8 feet) tall at the shoulder and weighing 10.3 metric tons (11.35 short tons).
D. thraceiensis may have been slightly larger – 4.01 meters (13.2 feet) tall at the shoulder and 13.2 metric tons (14.5 short tons).
This makes the Deinotherium larger than the extant African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana), which is 2.6–3.2 meters (8.5–1.5 feet) tall and weighs 3–6 metric tons (3.3–6.6 short tons) on average.
Compared to the extant Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), the Deinotherium is a giant, as this modern elephant measures only 2.4–2.75 meters (7.9–9 feet) tall at the shoulder and weighs 2.7–4 metric tons (2.3–4.4 short tons).
Habitat and Distribution
The Deinotherium had quite a large distribution – East Africa, Southern Europe, South and East Asia.
Their specific location cannot be outlined, primarily because of the mystery revolving around the fossils.
Did you know that, over the years, scientists have named 31 species, but only three are officially recognized today?
Besides this, many of them are considered synonymous with one of the recognized species, but not one has been officially confirmed to be synonymous.
Who knows how many fossils are waiting to be discovered that may extend their distribution?
Despite this, we’ve made a comprehensive list of localities that revealed Deinotherium fossils:
- Lyon, France
- Ezerovo, Plovdiv Province, Bulgaria
- Eppelsheim Formation, Mainz Basin, Germany (and other locations in the country)
- Mânzați, Romania
- Kanjera Formation, Kenya
- Kubi Algi Formation, Kenya
- Koobi Fora Formation, Kenya
- Ngorora Formation, Kenya
- Faneromeni Formation, Crete
- Rostov-on-Don, Russia
- Perim Island, Red Sea
- Siwalik Hills and other locations on the Indian Subcontinent
- Gansu, Northwest China
- Czech Republic
- Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania
- The Omo Basin, Ethiopia
- Middle Awash, Ethiopia
While not all the fossils found in the locations mentioned above are fully recognized, scientists still list them as part of the Deinotherium.
The thing is, we’ll never know the whole truth, as most of what is assumed about our world’s prehistoric wildlife is pure speculation.
Considering how widely Deinotherium was distributed, we’ll focus on discussing the worldwide climate between the Middle Miocene and the Early Pleistocene, when Deinotherium was alive.
The Middle Miocene period was marked by the Middle Miocene Warm Interval, followed by the Middle Miocene Climate Transition when temperatures dropped significantly.
The cooling period lasted approximately 3 million years and was then replaced by the Late Miocene Cool Interval, when our planet’s climate started shifting, similar to the climate it registers today.
During this period, many parts of the world experienced radical changes.
Kenya, for example, but also other parts of the world, went through a time of progressive aridification interspersed with relatively humid periods.
It is believed that this aridification process led to the extinction of some Deinotherium populations.
The Pliocene lasted from 5.3 to 2.58 million years ago. It started with an increase in global temperatures, the average being approximately 2–3 Celsius degrees higher than today.
Then it cooled down, leading to repeated glacial cycles in the Pleistocene.
Approximately 30% of our planet’s surface was covered in ice.
The sea level dropped significantly. Some of the locations where the Deinotherium may have lived featured glaciers.
It is believed, however, that most Deinotherium populations were alive during the Miocene, with most of them going extinct at the beginning of the Pliocene.
The South African populations are believed to have survived longer than Western and Eastern European populations.
The last known group is thought to have gone extinct roughly one million years ago.
Based on what is known about the diet of the Deinotherium, we can assume it lived in open woodland habitats dominated by canopy trees.
It has also been suggested that Deinotherium avoided sub-boreal climate conditions and preferred living in subtropical climate conditions.
Behavior and Diet
Paleontological evidence indicates Deinotherium was a folivorous browser, meaning it fed on leaves, particularly canopy tree leaves.
You’re probably wondering what the use of Deinotherium tusks was, right?
After all, they are the most distinctive feature of the genus.
The truth is, scientists aren’t sure yet.
If you’re a wildlife enthusiast, you’ve probably already guessed that the tusks may have functioned as a sexual display or may have marked a certain sexual dimorphism.
But this is highly unlikely, specialists confirm.
The most plausible theory is that the tusks served as aids during feeding.
Wear marks on fossilized tusks show that the Deinotherium may have relied on its tusks to remove the branches that prevented it from eating.
Then, the trunk was used to transport the leaves to the mouth.
The Deinotherium could likely move easily across its range, sometimes traveling long distances.
It is even believed that the Deinotherium was not a year-round resident of all locations that revealed its fossils.
Some individuals may have always been on the move, especially considering how many climatic shifts our world registered between the Middle Miocene and the Early Pleistocene.
Very little is known about the reproduction of the Deinotherium, as few studies focused on this particular aspect of its life.
However, we can turn to what is known about elephant reproduction.
Although they are only distant relatives of the Deinotherium, the fact that they share similar physical characteristics indicates that their reproductive behavior and life cycle may also resemble each other, at least to some degree.
Considering what is known about mammals, including elephants, the Deinotherium may have been sexually dimorphic.
Females may have had a different pelvic configuration that allowed easy birth, while males had distinctive ischia and pubes.
Male elephants experience something called musth, during which they become quite aggressive.
This period lasts between a few days to a few weeks when the bulls are young, meaning up to 35 years old, and lasts for 2-5 months when they get older, although these details may vary between species.
In turn, females look for males in musth to protect them during the estrous cycle.
They will yell loudly, calling for males.
This way, the males end up fighting each other, often being severely injured or even killed.
Naturally, it would be impossible to assess whether this behavior was observed in extinct elephant-like creatures.
Elephants reproduce sexually. Bulls become sexually mature when they are 15 years old, while cows reach sexual maturity at 8-12 years of age, depending on the species, nutrition, and population density.
However, not all elephants begin breeding when they’re sexually mature.
Female African forest elephants start breeding at 23, although sexual maturity is attained at 12.
The gestation period of African elephants lasts 22 months, and females give birth every 3-6 years.
Once the calf is born, it remains alongside the mother.
African elephants live in family units led by a matriarch, which is typically an older cow.
Males are not part of these groups. They leave the female sometime after mating.
However, males are observed in herds when looking for food and water.
They may return to their family units to show dominance toward their young sons.
In African elephants, calves are born with tushes, which are replaced by tusks when they are one year old.
Evolution and History
The origins of the Deinotherium can be traced back to Africa during the Oligocene period, where the territory was home to Chilgatherium, the most primitive member of the Deinotheriidae family.
After the Proboscidean Datum Event, these mammals spread into Eurasia in a highly diverse form, the Prodeinotherium being one of them and probably a direct predecessor of the Deinotherium.
Compared to Deinotherium, Prodeinotherium was much smaller, measuring approximately 2 meters (6.6 feet) tall at the shoulder.
Such a significant size increase can be linked to the highly diversified predator populations of the Miocene.
Additionally, the limbs of the Deinotherium may have grown longer as an adaptation to long-distance walking during the aridification of the Miocene.
Another thing that may have played a role is the cooling period of the Middle Miocene, which we’ve previously discussed.
A large body mass aided in maintaining heat.
If we went back in time to when the first Deinotherium fossils were discovered, we’d reach the 17th century, when some large bones were found near Lyon.
They were initially attributed to mammoth-like animals and later to a large tapir named Tapir gigantesque, a pig-like creature with short nose trunks.
Another theory was that the bones belonged to a sirenian, also called a sea cow, a fully aquatic mammal living in rivers, estuaries, and other aquatic habitats.
However, the true Deinotherium genus wasn’t named until 1829, when a fossilized skull and mandible unearthed in Germany served as material for describing the genus.
Over the years, scientists have coined over 31 species in this genus, but only three are officially recognized today:
- Deinotherium giganteum
- Deinotherium bozasi
- Deinotherium indicum
Many named species are now considered synonymous with valid ones, which is why the material is still attributed to the genus.
Interactions with Other Species
While some prehistoric creatures had quite a limited distribution and outlining a possible fauna of their habitat is easy, stating what animals crossed paths with the Deinotherium would take days!
After all, these mammals were so widely distributed that they may have interacted with hundreds of other creatures!
However, we can discuss what is known about the Miocene fauna from a broad perspective since that’s when most Deinotherium populations were alive.
But even this discussion would be extensive, as the period was rich in diverse creatures.
Mammals, for example, were quite common – canids, bears, pcoyonids, beavers, deer, camelids, rhinos, and others.
Various birds appeared during the Miocene, as did some aquatic reptiles, marsupial-like mammals, apes, and others.
The extent to which Deinotherium interacted with them remains unknown. Additionally, considering its size, it likely had no predators.
Despite its significance in our world’s evolutionary history, Deinotherium isn’t as popular in the media.
It is featured only in a few productions, like Land of the Mammoth and Walking With Prehistoric Beasts.
It is also a creature in Jurassic World: The Game and Jurassic World: Alive.
With a temporal range spanning from the Middle Miocene until the Early Pleistocene and such a wide distribution, it’s no wonder Deinotherium fossils were discovered in more than ten countries!
An elephant-like proboscidean, Deinotherium had a flexible neck and trunk, limbs adapted for long-distance walking, and tusks curving downward and then backward.
It was likely a folivorous browser and went extinct as a result of the gradual aridification that occurred in the Miocene. Only a few populations survived until the Pleistocene.
Is Deinotherium the largest elephant?
The Deinotherium is not the largest elephant simply because the Deinotherium is not a true elephant but an elephant-like mammal, part of the same order as modern elephants.
While Deinotherium is classified under the Deinotheriidae family, elephants are part of the Elephantidae family.