About 800,000 years ago, a giant straight-tusked elephant migrated out of Africa and spread across Europe and Asia. Marked by a huge head (4.5 feet from the top of the skull roof to the base of the tusk sheaths), the elephant divided into many species, such as Palaeoloxodon antiquus (in Europe), Palaeoloxodon namadicus (India) and Palaeoloxodon naumanni (Japan).
All these species are now extinct. Now, an international study in Quaternary Science Reviews has sought to bring some order into our understanding of these species.
One key point of confusion was the different sizes of skull crests in fossils found in Europe. For a long time, it was thought that the European species had a rather slenderly built skull roof crest, whereas the Indian species was characterised by an extremely robust skull crest that extended near to the base of the trunk from the top of the skull.
But some skulls, found in Italy and Germany, with almost the same exaggerated skull crest as the Indian form, raised confusion whether these were the same as the Indian species.
The new study has concluded that there was a single European species. Measurements showed that even in European skulls with pronounced crests, the skull roof never becomes as thickened as in the Indian specimens. On the other hand, fossils found in Asia and East Africa represent distinct species that evolved.
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