Fifty million years of elephant history on view at LHS

By Linda Schneider, Lawrence Hall of Science


Above: Roshan Gujar, a Berkeley senior majoring in anthropology, demonstrates the ancient techniques of Rangoli, a traditional Indian folk-art form used to signify special occasions. Gujar and other Rangoli artists will be on hand at LHS on Oct. 12 to create elephant-themed Rangoli floor art.
Photo courtesy of Lawrence Hall of Science

02 October 2002 | Ever meet a prehistoric shovel tusker, mummified baby mammoth, or fully grown elephant only three feet tall? Stay tuned. October — month for all manner of ghouls, goblins, and strange-looking creatures — marks the opening of Lawrence Hall of Science’s exhibit on the elephant and its ancient ancestors.

“People have no idea how bizarre some of the ancestors of the modern elephant looked,” says visiting preparator Hal Halvorson, who helped install “Elephants!” at the campus science museum.

He cites Platybelodon, a.k.a. “shovel tusker,” as one of the strangest. A cast of its skull, on display at LHS, offers a close-up view of the extended lower teeth (designed for scooping up vegetation from marshes and swamps) and the flat, broad, shovel-shaped tusks that earned the lumbering creature its name.

Mastodons to modern day
Visitors can learn about all things elephant — from family life, the sounds they make, and how much food they eat to facts about the ivory trade and elephant ailments. For a look at the elephant’s role in human culture, a “Celebration of the Asian Elephant,” from noon to 5 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 12, will include activities, cuisine, and arts from Asian cultures where the elephant is found, an intimate film portrait of an infant elephant, and elephant tales from around the world.

A unique feature of the exhibit is its coverage of prehistoric elephants.

“People are getting a good dose of information about modern elephants from sources such as television programs and zoos,” says Halvorson. “When it comes to information on mammoths and mastodons, though, viewers don’t get enough to know where they fit in the scheme of things.”

Interactive displays — as well as prehistoric fossils and “first-time-on-tour” casts of strange and rare mammoths and mastadons — will help visitors trace the 50-million-year-long evolution of the elephant family, for whom the most notable trend, over time, has been increasing size.

Ever-growing girth
To support their ever-larger bodies, ancestors of the modern elephant evolved tusks capable of handling massive volumes of food. To get water, the trunk was formed from the upper lip and nose — eventually becoming so long and flexible that it could grab food and push it into the creature’s mouth. Some elephants even developed fingerlike projections at the end of their trunks for even finer movements. (Check out the exhibit’s display of paintings done by elephants.)

One wooly mammoth is covered in hair, to appear as it did in the Pleistocene Epoch. The specimen stands ten feet tall — impressive even though fossils of mammoths up to 19 feet in height have been found in China. Nearby is a skeleton of the Hebior Mammoth, the largest and most complete wooly mammoth found to date in North America. Discovered beneath a Wisconsin corn field, the fossilized bones showed marks of stone tools, also found at the site. Carbon-dating of the bones revealed that they were 12,500 years old, leading scientists to speculate that humans may have crossed the Bering Strait land bridge from Asia much earlier than previously believed.

“Elephants!” will be on exhibit at LHS through Jan. 12, 2003. The hall’s general information number is 642-5132.


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