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The Elephants of Arizona

Proboscideans in State 48

Arizona has had its share of elephants over the long span of the last couple of million years, with two species currently residing in the state. Here are seven other kinds of elephant-like animals that have inhabited the state, there may be more found!

Gomphotherium productum

Our earliest elephant-type animal was probably Gomphotherium productum.

Gomphotherium productum stood about 2.5 meters (8 feet) at the shoulder, and was about 5 meters (16 feet) long, excluding its trunk. They weighed around 4,000 to 5,000 kilograms (8,800 to 11,000 pounds).

They lived during the Middle Miocene-Early Pliocene, approximately 16 to 11 million years ago. They were herbivores, like all elephants and it was a browser browser, using its long, curved tusks to strip leaves and branches from trees. These tusks were curved downward, unlike modern elephants.

The name “Gomphotherium” reflects its unique tooth structure, with “gomphos” meaning “peg” in Greek, referring to the peg-like ridges on its molars, suited for grinding plant material.

Gomphotherium skull
Gomphotherium skull. [Photo by Ghedoghedo – Own work, [CC BY-SA 3.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18778098]

Amebelodon

Life reconstruction of Amebelodon fricki
Life reconstruction of Amebelodon fricki

Amebelodon stood around 2.5 meters (8 feet) at the shoulders and was around 4.5 to 5 meters (15 to 16 feet) long, excluding its trunk. They weighed about 3,000 to 4,000 kilograms (6,600 to 8,800 pounds). There have been several species named, but they are not well understood. I’m not sure which one, or ones would have been in Arizona.

They lived during the late Miocene epoch, from around 10 to 5 million years ago. Amebelodon is recognized for its unique dental adaptations, particularly its lower incisors, which curve forward and resemble shovel-like structures. These incisors were used for digging and uprooting vegetation, suggesting a diet focused on lower plants and roots.

Amebelodon‘s upper incisors developed into elongated, curved tusks projecting from the sides of its mouth, similar to the modern walrus. These tusks were likely employed for grasping and manipulating vegetation, as well as for display purposes or even defense.

The name “Amebelodon” is derived from the Greek words: “amebe,” meaning “shovel,” and “odon,” meaning “tooth.” This name describes the prominent features of its dentition.

Cuvieronius

Cuvieronius stood an average of 2.5 meters (8 feet) at the shoulder and was about 4 to 4.5 meters (13 to 15 feet) long, excluding its trunk. They weighed from 2,500 to 3,500 kilograms (5,500 to 7,700 pounds).

They lived during the late Pleistocene, from around 1.8 million to 11,000 years ago. Cuvieronius inhabited parts of North America, though was more common in Central and South America.

Cuvieronius had long, downward-curving tusks. Both male and female Cuvieronius had tusks.

Cuvieronius was primarily a browser, consuming a variety of vegetation, including leaves, fruits, and perhaps whole shrubs.

The name “Cuvieronius” pays homage to the French naturalist Georges Cuvier, who made significant contributions to the field of paleontology.

Illustration of Cuvieronius hyodon, from fossils in Mexico
Illustration of Cuvieronius hyodon, from fossils in Mexico. [Illustration: by Joaquin Eng Ponce – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44584745]

Rhynchotherium falconeri

Life reconstruction of Rhynchotherium
Life reconstruction of Rhynchotherium

Rhynchotherium falconeri stood at an average of 3 meters (10 feet) high, and was around 4.5 to 5 meters (15 to 16 feet) long, excluding its trunk. They weighed about 5,000 to 6,000 kilograms (11,000 to 13,200 pounds).

They lived during the late Miocene and Pliocene, from around 10 to 5 million years ago. Rhynchotherium‘s remains, like Cuvieronius, have been discovered in North and South America. This species was named from fossils found on 111 Ranch, Graham County, Arizona.

Rhynchotherium had a strange-looking elongated, downturned lower jaw with an extended, shovel-like lower lip. This adaptation was likely used for grasping and uprooting vegetation, allowing it to dig up plants and possibly handle aquatic vegetation.

Its tusks were not as prominent as those of some other proboscideans.

The name “Rhynchotherium” is derived from Greek words: “rhynchos,” meaning “snout,” and “therion,” meaning “beast.” The name reflects the distinctive shape of its lower jaw and lip.

Stegomastodon

Stegomastodon stood at an average shoulder height of approximately 3 to 3.5 meters (10 to 11.5 feet) and was around 5 to 5.5 meters (16.5 to 18 feet) long, excluding its trunk. Stegomastodon weighed about 8,000 to 10,000 kilograms (17,600 to 22,000 pounds).

They lived during the late Miocene and Pliocene, from around 5 to 1 million years ago. Stegomastodon‘s fossil remains have been discovered across various regions in North and South America. S. mirificus is the species that has been found in Arizona, though originally described as S. barbouri.

Stegomastodon tusks were a unique spiral or corkscrew shape. The tusks, especially those of males, were prominent and used for various activities, including digging, foraging, and potentially as defensive weapons.

Stegomastodon was primarily a browser.

Life reconstruction of Stegomastodon.
Life reconstruction of Stegomastodon.

The name “Stegomastodon” reflects its intriguing features, with “stego” referring to the ridges on its molar teeth and “mastodon” signifying its membership in the proboscidean family.

Mammut raki

Mammut raki was a fairly rare mastodon that stood around 3 meters (10 feet) high at the shoulder, and was 4 to 4.5 meters (13 to 15 feet) long, excluding its trunk. They weighed about 4,500 to 6,000 kilograms (9,900 to 13,200 pounds).

They lived during the late Miocene and early Pliocene from around 8 to 4 million years ago. They are not nearly as common or well known as the American mastodon, M. americanum.

Mammut raki had a unique shovel-like lower jaw and elongated, downturned lower lip, adapted for grasping and uprooting vegetation.

The tusks of Mammut raki were relatively short compared to some other proboscideans.

The name “Mammut raki” incorporates “Mammut,” the genus name for mastodons, and “raki,” which is derived from the native language of the indigenous people of Alaska and reflects the locality where the remains were first identified from.

Mammut americanum

Life reconstruction of American mastodon.
Life reconstruction of American mastodon.

Mammut americanum, the American mastodon, stood at an average shoulder height of approximately 2.5 to 3 meters (8 to 10 feet) and were around 4 to 4.5 meters (13 to 15 feet) long, excluding its trunk. The weight of Mammut americanum ranged from 4,500 to 6,800 kilograms (9,900 to 15,000 pounds).

They lived from around 3 million to roughly 10,000 years ago, one of the last proboscideans in North America. Though fairly common in eastern North America, they were uncommon in the west.

The American mastodon was primarily a browser. While frequently pictured with long, shaggy hair, there seems to be no evidence of this.

The name “Mammut americanum” incorporates “Mammut,” the genus name for mastodons, and “americanum,” reflecting its presence in North America.

Mammuthus meridionalis

Mammuthus meridionalis, the Southern mammoth, was probably the earliest mammoth in North America. It may have been the ancestor of the later mammoths on the continent. It stood at an average shoulder height of 2.5 to 3 meters (8 to 10 feet) and was around 4.5 to 5 meters (15 to 16.5 feet) long, excluding its trunk. The weighed from 5,000 to 8,000 kilograms (11,000 to 17,600 pounds).

They lived during the Pliocene and Pleistocene, from about 2.5 million to roughly 500,000 years ago. Mammuthus meridionalis primarily inhabited regions across Europe, from the Iberian Peninsula to Central Europe, as well as parts of Asia.

While Mammuthus meridionalis was predominantly a European and Asian species, they do occur in North America, at least as far south as New Mexico. Fossil records of Mammuthus meridionalis in North America are notably sparse, and the species did not have a substantial presence on the continent compared to other mammoth species like Mammuthus columbi or Mammuthus primigenius (woolly mammoth).

The Southern mammoth had distinct tusks, with a characteristic spiral shape.

Mammuthus meridionalis was primarily a grazer, consuming grasses and other low-lying vegetation.

Mammuthus columbi

Mammuthus columbi, the Columbian mammoth, stood at around 3.5 to 4 meters (11.5 to 13 feet) and was around 4.5 to 5 meters (15 to 16.5 feet) long, excluding its trunk. Their weight ranged from 9,000 to 12,000 kilograms (19,800 to 26,500 pounds). Another species, M. imperator, the imperial mammoth, has been reported in Arizona, but most authors believe it is the same species as M. columbi. There are at least 80 mammoth sites here, and several of them have evidence that they are mammoth kill sites, with Paleoindian artifacts alongside butchered remains.

The Columbian mammoth lived during the Pleistocene epoch, from approximately 1.5 million to roughly 11,000 years ago. The Columbian mammoth inhabited North America, from what is now Canada down to Mexico and parts of Central America.

Mammuthus columbi was relatively large and had long curved tusks that exhibited a noticeable spiral, and a hump of fat and muscle over its shoulders, similar to modern-day bison. At least some of the time they fought each other with their tusks. Remains of two Columbian mammoths locked together in death by their tusks have been found in Nebraska.

The Columbian mammoth was primarily a grazer, consuming grasses and other low-lying vegetation.

Like the American mastodon, it was among the last elephant-like animals to live wild in Arizona.

Today’s Elephants

We do still have elephants in Arizona! Both African and Asian elephants live in zoos around the state, and you can visit them any day you wish. And you can visit us in Coolidge to see some Columbian mammoth bones, and an American mastodon tooth, and a bunch of other cool stuff.

The list of elephant species here noted from Arizona was mostly gleaned from the article cited below, a paper on New Mexican elephants. However, all of them have also been found in southern California, or in Arizona as noted above, so I feel comfortable saying they were here in Arizona too.

Lucas, Spencer G. and Gary S. Morgan. Ice Age Proboscideans of New Mexico. 2005. Lucas, S.G., Morgan, G.S. and Zeigler, K.E., eds., 2005, New Mexico’s Ice Ages, New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin No. 28.