About the Animals: Elephants

Large Elephants Image
Elephant Eubelodon

Elephants belong to the order Proboscidea—animals with trunks. Proboscidea is Greek for “having a nose.”

At various times, proboscideans have lived on each of the continents on earth except Australia and Antarctica.

The trunk may have initially evolved to serve as a snorkel, allowing the animal to spend long periods under the water's surface. In modern elephants the trunk serves as extra “arm and hand” for gathering food that would otherwise be hard to reach.

Though there have been scores of species in the order, only two have survived into recent times.

Elephants evolved primarily in the Old World and came to North America during a series of migrations. The immigrant elephants evolved into new North American forms but ultimately all these elephants were extinct by 10,000 years ago.

Why did all the other families of the order Proboscidea go extinct? Evidence suggests that North American mammoths and mastodons were hunted to extinction by the first humans to reach the continent. Some scientists also argue that warming climate played a role in their extinction.

Paleo sleuths continue to piece together the mystery of why some species vanish and other go on.

Traveling Trunks

Click one of the buttons below the map to begin exploring how elephants migrated over time
It might be hard to imagine it now… but elephants once roamed Nebraska. Of course, they didn’t start out there. 56 million years ago, elephant species originated in Africa and remained there for the next 33 million years.
20 million years ago, elephant ancestors spread across land bridges from Africa to Europe to Asia.
They reached North America 16 million years ago and South America 3 million years ago.
Elephants died out completely in Nebraska and in many parts of the world. Today, only three species remain in Asia and Africa.
Many of them lived—and died—in Nebraska. Elephants are one of the most common fossils in Nebraska and some of the most complete skeletons have been found here. Fossils of elephants have been found in 90 of Nebraska’s 93 counties.
56-33 MYA
20 MYA
16-3 MYA

The Elephant Evolutionary Tree

Learn more about out how the elephant evolved from a smooth-faced, four-tusked beast to the familiar pachyderms we know today.

Elephant Evolution Tree
Art depictions © Mark Marcuson/University of Nebraska State Museum.

3D Models

A Historical Perspective on Elephant Evolution

Elephant Evolve

Nebraska's Pieces of the Puzzle

This state has supplied many pieces of the puzzle that help form the picture of changing climate and habitat, and its relationship to elephant evolution.

At Ashfall Fossil Beds, a middle Miocene site where volcanic ash overwhelmed whole communities of animals, excavations revealed specimens including a jawbone of a short-jawed four-tusker or Eubelodon in the sand layer below the ashbed. The water hole was situated in a depression amid warm grasslands and riparian (river-related) forests. Historical work was done here by paleo sleuth Mike Voorhies.

Norden Bridge, a middle Miocene site from about 14 MYA, was host to the first elephants in Nebraska and had the greatest diversity of animals from any terrestrial fossil site in the world, according to Mike Voorhies. The Gompotheres or four tuskers at Norden Bridge lived in a warm, temperate, forested habitat along stream channels. Winter temperatures were mild and did not go below freezing for long periods (indicated by the presence of species like tortoises that could not tolerate freezing). It was home to both grazers and browsers, and was an environment with several habitats. Historical work was done here by paleo sleuths Morris Skinner and Mike Voorhies.

Oak, a site from the late Pleistocene (about half a million years ago), had specimens of mastodons and mammoths, along with many browsers and a few grazers. Pine and spruce pollen were also found there. Historical work was done here by paleo sleuth Mike Voorhies.