Future Proboscideans

African bush elephantProboscideans are an ancient order of mammals that have existed since the Tertiary Period, 50 million years ago. Over the span of this group’s history, they have included moeritheres, deinotheres, gomphotheres, mastodons, mammoths, and elephants. Today, only 3 species of elephants remain: 2 African and 1 Asian species. Elephants are massive beasts; the largest nowadays can be as tall as 11 feet and can weigh 11 tons. Many have tusks, the ivory of which has resulted in the deaths of numerous elephants. In recent times, these amazing animals have been threatened by poaching with conservation be rather limited in some countries. One must wonder if these wonderful giants will survive after our demise?

Being such large animals, I fear that their survival will depend on isolated environments such as forested valleys and islands. Areas that fit into this description include East Africa (after separating from the mainland of course), Indonesia, the Himalayas, north Africa and the Mediterranean (after colliding). If populations from elephant sanctuaries and zoos are able to breed and populate foreign regions than there could even be American elephants (or elephants just about anywhere else where they are kept captive).

Borneo elephantThe niche that any future elephants would fit into is most likely to be varied browser (grass and foliage). If a North American population develops, I could see Asian elephants becoming hairy American neo-mammoths, sharing the plains with wild donkeys, giant mule deer, wolf-like coyotes or foxes, lion-like cougars, and huge peccaries. Young Asian elephants are already quite hairy, so I don’t see why hairy adults wouldn’t occur. In their native Asia, I could see Stegodon-like elephants in southeast Asia but logging and semi-domestication have done a good deal to their populations. (In an ironic twist, the elephants themselves are used to take down the forest they call home.) Just as well, they could become dwarves but dwarf elephants (Elephas maximus borneensis) already exist.

Loxodonta rangeIn East Africa, where I predict the line will make its last stand, similar adaptations will be made (as in longer tusks like Stegodon or smaller body size as in many dwarf mammoths and elephants). To be honest though, it is being quite optimistic to say that elephants will come out of the human age clean and free but if they do there will be a period in which their populations will boom as a result of no pressure from humans. After a while though, they would level out in numbers and reach a temporary equilibrium until even more changes effect the world they live in, such as an ice age or some sort of major floral extinction (not quite as likely as an ice age). Later on I will discuss what groups of animals might replace elephants in a series on “new megafauna”.