Late Middle Pleistocene Elephants from Natodomeri, Kenya and the Disappearance of Elephas (Proboscidea, Mammalia) in Africa


Comparative morphometric study of recently recovered fossil elephant molars from Natodomeri, Kenya identifies them as belonging to Elephas jolensis and confirms the presence of this species in Members I and II of the Kibish Formation. Improved datation of these geological units constrains them between 205 and 130 ka. Elephas jolensis is also reported from localities in northern, northwestern, eastern, and southern Africa. Thus, including its Natodomeri occurrence, E. jolensis appears to have been pan-African in distribution. Despite the wide geographic distribution of the species, molars of E. jolensis are remarkably uniform morphometrically. They are characterized by their extreme hypsodonty, high amplitude of enamel folding, high lamellar frequency, and plates that are anteroposteriorly thick relative to transverse valley interval spacing. In addition, they exhibit only a modest number of plates (<20 in M3/m3). Elephas jolensis either evolved from or represents the last stage of Elephas recki, the dominant elephant species in East Africa during the late Pliocene-Pleistocene. The dental morphology and isotopic composition of E. jolensis indicates that, like E. recki, it was a dedicated grazer. In the Kibish Formation, E. jolensis is succeeded by Loxodonta africana at 130 ka, coincident with an intensely cool, dry interval marked by episodes of extreme drought. This marked the extirpation of Elephas on the continent. The intensity and increased rate of climate fluctuation may have played an important role in the demise of the specialist, grazing E. recki-E. jolensis lineage in favor of a generalist, mixed feeder such as L. africana.

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We thank the Government of Kenya for permission to work at Natodomeri and the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) for their support of this project. Special appreciation is extended to Rose Nyaboke for collections assistance at the NMK and hospitality, and to Carol Abraczinskas for expert production of figures. The Turkana County administration, the Turkana people in the Natodomeri area, and West Turkana Palaeo Project crew members provided invaluable support to the project. Funding for the project was provided by the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation and the Palaeontological Scientific Trust (PAST) of South Africa. Research travel of WJS was supported by National Science Foundation grant NSF SBR 124811. The stable isotope work for the project was supported by National Science Foundation grant NSF-1740383.

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  1. Francis H. Brown is deceased. This paper is dedicated to his memory.

    • Francis H. Brown

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Correspondence to William J. Sanders.

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Manthi, F.K., Sanders, W.J., Plavcan, J.M. et al. Late Middle Pleistocene Elephants from Natodomeri, Kenya and the Disappearance of Elephas (Proboscidea, Mammalia) in Africa. J Mammal Evol 27, 483–495 (2020).

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  • Natodomeri, Kenya
  • Kibish Formation
  • Elephantidae
  • Elephas jolensis
  • Late middle Pleistocene