|Name Meaning||“Flat-spear tooth”||Height||3 meters (10 feet)|
|Pronunciation||Plat-ee-BELL-uh-don||Length||5–6 meters (16–20 feet)|
|Era||Cenozoic – Neogene Period||Weight||2–3 tons (4,409-6,614 lbs)|
|Classification||Mammalia, Proboscidea & Amebelodontidae||Location||Europe, Asia, and Africa|
If you could travel millions of years into the past, the ancestors of modern-day elephants that you’ll find would be considerably different from the ones around today.
They ranged from hairy mammoths to enormous beasts with up to four tusks shooting out of their mouth instead of the typical two.
Arguably the most bizarre of them all was the Platybelodon.
This giant old-looking elephant lived in Asia and Africa during the Middle Miocene Epoch, about 15 million to four million years ago.
Known for its elongated lower jaw, which ended in two tusk-like incisors that were shaped like shovels, the Platybelodon’s name translates as “flat tooth.”
It was first discovered in the 1920s and has remained one of the most enigmatic animals known from the Miocene Epoch.
Different theories have been put forward to explain the function of the Platybelodon’s tusk and other aspects of the giant elephant’s life.
In this post, we’ll discuss some of the things we now know about the Platybelodon and how it lived.
The Platybelodon was similar to modern elephants in a lot of ways.
It had the same large, barrel-shaped torso, sturdy pillar-like legs, and a robust body like other modern and extinct members of the Proboscidea order.
The part where it differed from modern relatives was the overall structure of its skull and facial features.
It isn’t clear if the Platybelodon had an elongated trunk like the elephantines or if its upper lips were modified into any other type of fleshy structure.
That’s because non-bony appendages of this sort were rarely preserved in the fossil record.
But the lower jaws of the Platybelodon are well-known from the fossil record.
It was characterized by an elongated mandible that had two long flat teeth protruding from it.
The two tusk-like incisors were broad and curved, which made them resemble shovels.
The tusks were long, measuring about two or three feet and about a foot wide on average.
The upper incisors were smaller and had a more conventional shape.
The lower tusks of the Platybelodon are similar to that of the Deinotherium, another well-known elephantine with elongated tusks.
However, while the lower tusks of the Deinotherium curved downwards, that of the Platybelodon curved upward.
It was also similar to Amebelodon, a closely related elephantine which also had modified tusks on its lower jaws.
Platybelodon was slightly smaller than modern elephants.
It stood around three feet (10 meters) tall at the shoulder.
The Platybelodon’s length, including the massive skull, was about 16 to 20 feet (5–6 meters), while the mass ranged between two and three tons on average.
The body was covered in thick, smooth skin, similar to elephants today.
Habitat and Distribution
Platybelodon lived during the Miocene Epoch approximately 23 to five million years ago.
The distribution of the fossils of this ancient elephant suggests that it had a relatively wide geographic range that covered parts of present-day Africa, Asia, and North America.
Although the specific habitat of the Platybelodon varied across the different continents where it lived, this proboscidean preferred wetland environments.
It lived in swamps, marshes, and riverbanks and may have lived in open savannas as well.
During the Miocene, when the Platybelodon was alive, the Earth’s climate was generally warm and stable.
However, there were slight variations in temperature and precipitation from place to place and over the course of the year.
The Miocene Epoch was characterized by the spread of open grasslands, which replaced the dense forests that were quite abundant in the previous period.
The open grasslands and the adjourning wetlands of the Miocene provided suitable habitats for the Platybelodon.
Behavior and Diet
Like their living and extinct relatives, Platybelodon was a slow-moving quadrupedal animal.
The prehistoric elephant’s weight was supported on four sturdy legs.
Like modern elephants, the forelimbs of the Platybelodon were slightly longer than its hind limbs, which gave it a slightly inclined posture.
It had a slow and ponderous gait, which enabled it to maneuver through the wetland environments where it lived.
Platybelodon was a herbivore, but the exact type of plant materials it fed on is still subject to debate.
The elephant’s specialized adaptations, such as its shovel-like tusks and ridged molars, suggest it probably fed on wetland plants.
This means its diet included various soft grasses, leaves, and aquatic vegetation.
The elephant was initially presumed to have used its teeth like a shovel to dig up aquatic and semi-aquatic plants.
Scientists widely accepted this feeding habit until recently.
Recent scientific findings suggest that it had a slightly different diet.
Based on studies of the wear pattern observed in the Platybelodon, experts now think the lower tusks functioned more like a scythe than a shovel.
It probably used the tusks to strip bark from trees.
If this mechanism is right, feeding for the Platybelodon likely involved grasping a tree branch with its trunk and rubbing it back and forth against the lower teeth to cut it.
Their diet may have also varied by age, with adults feeding on tougher vegetation while juveniles stuck to softer plants.
There’s really no evidence to explain the social behavior of the Platybelodon.
But if it’s anything like that of modern elephants, they likely lived in small family groups that consisted of adult females and their offspring.
Adult males were probably solitary and were only seen with females during mating season.
Reproduction in the Platybelodon was most likely sexual.
After mating, females had a long gestation period, after which a live young was born.
Although massive at birth, Platybelodon juveniles were vulnerable and completely depended on their mother for care and protection.
As with modern elephants, the calves would have undergone a period of rapid growth and development during their early years.
Maturity also involved gradually transitioning from a diet primarily consisting of milk to consuming solid vegetation.
Experts think the Platybelodon’s double lower tusk is an adaptation they develop later in life and not as juveniles.
Fossils of juvenile individuals did not show this adaptation, confirming the theory that juveniles had a completely different diet compared to adult forms.
Evolution and History
Platybelodon belongs to the order Proboscidea, a large family of elephant-like mammals with more than 180 extinct species.
The earliest members of this order, such as Eritherium and Phosphatherium, evolved in Africa shortly after the Late Cretaceous extinction event.
They were relatively small, and some of them lived in semi-aquatic environments.
Over time, the proboscideans evolved considerably, and many new groups emerged.
Platybelodon was one of the several genera of Proboscidea that emerged during the Miocene Epoch.
The most striking adaptation shown by this proboscidean was its shovel-shaped tusks.
It shared this adaptation with other members of the family Amebelodontidae, also known as shovel-tusked elephants.
Members of this family are known for their elongated mandibles and flattened lower tusks.
In the past, experts believed this adaptation helped the amebelodonts to scoop up aquatic vegetation for food.
However, recent studies now show that the Platybelodon and other shovel-tuskers used their tusks for scraping off tree branches.
This means they occupied a distinct ecological niche as browsers and mixed feeders.
The Platybelodon and other Miocene proboscideans remained in Africa for several million years until the collision of Afro-Arabia with Eurasia occurred about 18 million years ago.
This allowed their dispersal into Eurasia and subsequent spread into North America.
Interactions With Other Species
Platybelodon may have faced threats from various predators that coexisted with it during the Miocene Epoch.
Fossil evidence suggests that large carnivorous mammals such as saber-toothed cats and hyenas inhabited the same environments as Platybelodon.
These predators likely targeted weaker or more vulnerable individuals, such as calves, for hunting.
The bizarre jaws of the Platybelodon and its massive size would have made it difficult to get away from predators.
However, its size was probably enough deterrence to keep predators from attacking.
Adults were also capable of stomping and kicking prey in case of an attack.
The ferocious wolf-like creodonts were probably the biggest predators the Platybelodon had to worry about in its ecosystem.
Platybelodon likely encountered competition from other herbivorous species that lived in the same ecosystem.
The Miocene Epoch saw the emergence of various herbivores, including other proboscideans such as Gomphotherium and Amebelodon.
These elephantines showed similar feeding adaptations as the Platybelodon, which suggests that they had similar feeding habits.
Other large herbivorous mammals like the giant rhinoceroses and large ungulates were present as well.
These plant eaters likely competed for similar resources, especially vegetation, and access to water sources.
Since its initial description back in 1932, paleontologists and scientific illustrators have tried to reconstruct the likely appearance of the Platybelodon.
Getting the prehistoric elephant’s appearance right has been of considerable interest to scientists because of the bizarre facial features it demonstrated, especially the flattened lower tusk.
Figuring out the structure of the trunk was the key to understanding the diet and feeding habits of the Platybelodon and some of its closest relatives.
Apart from the puzzling lower mandibles, experts have also wondered if the Platybelodon had a prehensile trunk like those of its other relatives and what this might have looked like.
But the absence of fossilized parts has made it difficult to unravel this aspect of the Platybelodon’s anatomy.
Platybelodon is not as popular with the general public as other prehistoric proboscideans, such as mastodons and mammoths.
These ice-age elephants have been featured in several prehistoric animal documentaries, books, and other scientific materials.
The Platybelodon did make an appearance in the popular Ice Age movies.
It was featured in cave drawings shown briefly in the first Ice Age film and was a notable character in the second movie, Ice Age: The Meltdown, released in 2006.
Platybelodon was a large herbivorous mammal in the same order as modern elephants (order Proboscidea).
It lived across various continents, notably Africa, Europe, and Asia, during the Miocene Epoch between 15 and four million years ago.
Platybelodon has long puzzled scientists because of the unique structure of its lower jaws.
The elongated jaws featured two flattened tusk-like incisors that were shaped like shovels.
The function of this unique jaw has been a subject of scientific debate for several years.
Experts once believed they used their shovel-like tusks for digging up aquatic and semi-aquatic vegetation.
But recent studies now suggest a completely different use for the tusk.
This changes a lot of what we know about the feeding habits of the Platybelodon as well as its possible habitat.
This proboscidean, along with other shovel tuskers of the Miocene Epoch, eventually went extinct towards the end of the Miocene Epoch about four million years ago.
What does the name “Platybelodon” mean?
The name “Platybelodon” is derived from Greek words, with “platys” meaning “flat” or “broad” and “belodont” meaning “tusk.”
It refers to the distinctive flattened tusks of this prehistoric mammal.
Did Platybelodon coexist with dinosaurs?
No, Platybelodon lived during the Miocene Epoch, which occurred after the extinction of the dinosaurs.
Dinosaurs went extinct approximately 65 million years ago, long before the Platybelodon evolved.
Where have Platybelodon fossils been found?
Fossils of Platybelodon have been discovered in various regions over the world.
This includes Africa (Egypt, Kenya, Chad), Asia (China, India, Pakistan, Thailand), and North America (western United States, Mexico).