Paleontologists at the Florida Museum of Natural History have made a “once-in-a-lifetime” discovery, finding an elephant graveyard of an extinct relative of elephants called gomphotheri.
Jonathan Bloch, curator of the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Florida Museum, and his team discovered parts of Homphatherium at a fossil dig in Montbrook early last year.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime find,” Bloch said. “This is the most complete gompheter skeleton of this period in Florida and one of the best in North America.”
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These gomphotheres probably died about five and a half million years ago in or near a river that had long since dried up.
Isolated Gomphotherus bones had been found at the site before, so Bloch and his team had no reason to believe they would find anything out of the ordinary.
A few days after the gomphater parts were found, volunteers discovered the hinged foot of something very large.
“I started hitting my toes and ankles one by one,” said Dean Warner, a retired chemistry teacher and volunteer from Montbrook. “As I continued to dig, what turned out to be the ulna and radius began to expose. We all knew we had found something special.”
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The research team soon realized that there were several complete skeletons, including one adult and at least seven juveniles. Bloch estimated that the height of an adult at the shoulders was about 8 feet. The length of the skull, including the tusks, was over nine feet.
According to Rachel Narducci, head of the Florida Museum’s Vertebrate Paleontology Collection, it is likely that the fossils were successively deposited or transported to the area. “Modern elephants travel in herds and can be very protective of their young, but I don’t think this was a situation where they all died at once,” she said. “It appears that members of one or more herds have been stuck in this location at different times.”
Over the past seven years, paleontologists working in Montbrook have discovered the oldest deer in North America, the oldest known skull of a saber-toothed cat, and a new species of extinct heron. Fossil supports from those times, such as bone-crushing dogs and short-snouted bears, are also scattered throughout the extensive fossil bed. Despite the variety of fossils at Montbrook, most of these animals were buried after being transported by flowing water, and their remains are rarely found intact. The discovery of several complete gomphaters was quite unexpected.
What are gomphothers
Gomphotheres are extinct relatives of modern elephants and, more distantly, mammoths. According to the Florida Museum, they are part of a larger group called “proboscis,” which includes all modern and extinct species of elephants and their close relatives. The group is characterized by a long trunk, or proboscis, and large tusks.
Unlike modern elephants, which have a single pair of upper tusks, many gomphatarian species also had a second, smaller set of lower tusks. The shape of these lower tusks varied considerably between species, with some shapes being tapered or elongated in a special way. For example, one genus known as Platybelodon had lower tusks that were flat and broad, resembling a “shovel” shape.
Where did the gomphothers live?
Gomphotheres thrived in the open savannas that were once common in Africa, Eurasia, and the Americas. But sustained global cooling that began about 14 million years ago led to vast grasslands gradually replacing savannahs, leading to a decline in gomphata diversity.
What is the Montbrook Fossil Dig?
The fossil digs at Montbrook are now the Florida Museum’s large-scale digs. It’s about a 45-minute drive south of Gainesville, near Williston in Levy County.
The Florida Museum estimates the site to be between five and five and a half million years old, between the late Miocene and earliest Pliocene of the Hempphylian epoch of North American land mammals. This is an ancient river system located about 30 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, but the area was much closer to the sea when the bones were first deposited.