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The ancestors of modern elephants first
appeared in the fossil record during the Eocene
period, or about 45 to 55 million years ago.
Like the earliest ancestors of many other animals,
the first elephant -- Moeritherium (meer-uh-theer-ee-um)
it was quite different from today's elephant.
It was about two feet tall and had no trunk.
Gradually, possibly in response to the earth's cooling temperatures, the descendants of Moeritherium grew larger in size and developed the nose-upper lip combination
that makes elephants so unique today. The arrangement of trunk and tusks took several forms over the generations, many quite different from today's modern elephant. Biologists believe the trunk may have developed to allow the large animals with very short necks to reach food and water easily. To date, more than 150 different species of elephants have been catalogued, including the hairy mammoths and mastodons.
In 1997, a nomadic reindeer herder spotted a
mammoth tusk sticking out of the ground while
herding reindeer. It was found that the entire
mammoth was encased in ice. Scientists excavated
it and it was flown 200 miles by helicopter from the
Taimyr Peninsula in Siberia to the city of Khatanga
where it will be kept frozen in an underground tunnel
during which extensive research will take place.
The modern world has two surviving elephant species:
the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), and the African elephant (Loxodonta africana).
Among Asian elephants there are 4 subspecies: Indian, Ceylon, Siumatran, and Malaysian. These are distinguished by physical traits related to their geographic location. For example, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) elephants tend to have larger ears, which are useful for regulating body temperature in the hotter climate of Sri Lanka.