Central Coast Critters: Gomphotherium

Hey there every peoples!

What do you say we follow up my last post with something a little more positive, eh?

Paleontology is full of familiar faces. Dinosaurs have what I call the “Main Four”: Tyrannosaurus rex, Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus (formerly Brontosaurus), and Triceratops. I call them such because they are the four most recognized and well known dinosaurs to the world. And there are still a few very well known dinosaurs, like Allosaurus, Ankylosaurus, Velociraptor, and Brachiosaurus. Mammals have a few too, namely the woolly mammoth, the saber-tooth cat, and the cave bear. But to paleontologists there are many more animals with which they easily recognize and are very familiar with. One such animal is Gomphotherium.

Skeleton of Gomphotherium at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (from flickr user LLudo)

Gomphotherium has been known to the paleontological community for over 170 years and has been found in Europe, Asia, and North America. It is perhaps the best known of the shovel-tuskers, an extinct but diverse group who added many branches to the proboscidean family tree (Proboscideans are elephants and their extinct relatives). Gomphotherium evolved in the proboscidean homeland of Africa and then spread throughout the world. It first entered North America 15 million years ago where it ranged from California and Oregon to Florida and Maryland.

Gomphotherium’s long lower jaw has puzzled scientists since the first one was found. What was it used for? How did a trunk fit over it? Originally it was thought that such jaws were used to dig up roots. Other interpretations said that the jaw was used to dredge water plants. Still some others think it was for stripping bark from trees. For all we know, it could have been all three. Modern elephants use their tusks for a variety of purposes. One population in Africa actually goes into underground caves and mines for salt, using their tusks as picks. The shovel-tusker jaw may have been a Swiss army knife, useful for a variety of purposes depending on the situation. And as for the trunk? That’s a little harder to pin down. Soft tissue is very rarely fossilized. But by looking at the bones of the skull we might be able to get an idea. Considering that this animal was a browser and likely doing all kinds of scooping type actions with its jaw, a long trunk is unlikely as it could have gotten in the way.

fleshed-out reconstruction of Gomphotherium (from the book Mammoths, Sabertooths, and Hominids)

And as luck would have it, this marvelous beast roamed the Central Coast. It is known from at least the middle Miocene Caliente formation, which is 14 to 12 million years old. According to a few entries in UCMP’s online collections database, a dentary (lower jaw), astragalus (ankle bone), and a partial humerous (upper armbone) are know from the Caliente. I don’t know if there are more specimens from this formation or others, but the few above are good enough for me. As with many Central Coast fossils, they are hidden away in UCMP’s vast collections. I would love to be able to secure them for our museum so that they may help tell the story of the Central Coast, but Berkeley is one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Why would they let go (even if it’s a simple loan) some of their legendary collections for a little guy like me? I had written a few letters to them in years past about some ice age fossils on behalf of a couple local museums. They never wrote back. Besides, you don’t get to brag that you have the largest fossil collection of any university in the world by loaning or selling or donating any of your specimens.

Jaw of Gomphotherium from the Mascal formation of Oregon

Sorry for the tangent. There are some complex feelings stirring there. But I hope I have illuminated a little more of the blogosphere by talking about another home of one of the most familiar faces in paleontology. Gomphotherium, I salute thee!

Till next time!

2 thoughts on “Central Coast Critters: Gomphotherium

  1. hello
    I m a student of MS(hons) in Zoology, university of Punjabb Pakistan.my research work is in paleontology. I have speccimen of Gomphotherium, collected from differnt areas of Pakistan. please send me literature on it.thanx in anticepation.

    • uh i don’t have any literature on Gomphotherium itself (i have some papers pertaining to it’s relatives) seeing as it’s so common in our record here it most often appears in papers a a component of a fauna. But if you need images, just go to my flickr page and type in “gomphothere”.

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