5.5 million-year-old elephant graveyard found in Florida

Researchers and volunteers associated with the Florida Museum of Natural History reported the discovery of an ancient “elephant graveyard” which has fossilized the remains of an extinct ancestor of elephants.

This discovery could provide clues to one of the largest animals discovered in Florida.

According to researchers, many Gonphotheres, an ancestor of elephants, died near a prehistoric river that disappeared from northern Florida.

It is likely that the animals died at different times in history, perhaps hundreds of years apart; however, the bodies of all gonphotheres were deposited at the same location where they were found in early 2022.

At the time of discovery, researchers found only gomphothere skeletons at Montbrook Fossil Dig, a finding that was not very special.

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Fragments of bones had been found at the site in the past, so there was not much chance of finding anything new until volunteers unearthed some sort of huge jointed foot.

After examining the remains, it was discovered to be an ulna and radius belonging to a large gonphotherium; therefore, they proceeded to dig up the rest of the skeleton.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime find,” Jonathan Bloch, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, said in a statement.

“It is the most complete gonphotherian skeleton from this period in Florida and is among the best in North America.”

Volunteers later found that not only was there a single animal at the site, but the team was also able to recover several complete adult skeletons and seven juvenile skeletons.

More work will be needed before researchers can provide an accurate figure for the animals’ size, although they think an adult specimen could be about 8 feet tall.

“Modern elephants travel in herds and can be very protective of their young,” explained Rachel Narducci, vertebrate paleontology collection manager at the Florida Museum, “but I don’t think this was a situation where they all died at once. It looks like members of one or more herds were trapped at this location at different times.”

“We’ve never seen anything like this at Montbrook,” Narducci added. “We usually find only one part of a skeleton at this site. The gomphotheres must have been buried quickly, or they may have been caught in a bend in the river where the flow slowed.”

Elephants and their relatives’ gomphotheres are called proboscideans, which are specimens that were found on every continent until the arrival of humans.

“In general, we all know what mastodons and woolly mammoths looked like, but gomphotheres are not so easy to categorize,” Narducci said. “They had a variety of body sizes and the shape of their tusks differed widely among species.”

The discoveries at Montbrook offer several interesting prospects for further research, as well as provide an opportunity to learn more about the enormous inhabitants of North America in the past.

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