Paris, June 23, 2009

Discovery of the oldest known elephants relative

Emmanuel Gheerbrant, paleontologist at the Paris Museum(1), discovered one of the oldest modern ungulates related to the elephant order. The study is published in the PNAS journal.

The beginnings of the radiation (diversification) of the modern mammals (placental orders) remain poorly known because of fossil gaps, and especially in some key Southern continents such as Africa. Emmanuel Gheerbrant, researcher at the CNRS(2), reports, in the framework of a Franco-Moroccan Research Agreement between the Museum and the Office Chérifien des Phosphates(3), the discovery of one of the oldest known modern ungulates in Paleocene beds from Morocco. Dated of about 60 millions years, this fossil mammal belongs to a new species called Eritherium azzouzorum. It comes from the same Ouled Abdoun phosphate basin which yielded Phosphatherium escuilliei(4), which was until the Eritherium's discovery the oldest and most primitive proboscidean, but from lower levels. This is the oldest known African ungulate (called paenungulates), and among them the oldest known member of the elephant order (proboscideans(5)) for which it supports an old African origin.


Eritherium azzouzorum is small (4 to 5 kg) and extraordinarily primitive. It exemplifies the emergence of a modern order of ungulates at an unrecorded so primitive stage which is illustrated by original reminiscences among proboscideans with primitive groups such as some condylarths(6) (louisinines, extinct)  and non-paenungulate afrotherians (elephant shrews, Eocene to Present).  Its primitive grade indicates (1) the rapid evolution of the proboscideans at the Paleocene-Eocene(7) transition (e.g., with increasing size), and (2) the rapid radiation of the African ungulates after the Cretaceous-Tertiary crisis (65 millions years ago), probably in relation to the colonization of the herbivorous African free niches.

Elephants 1

© MNHN, UMR 7207, C. Lemzaouda et P. Louis

View of the type specimen (skull) of the primitive proboscidean Eritherium azzouzorum

Elephants 2

© MNHN, UMR 7207, D. Geffard

Map of the Ouled Abdoun phosphate basin (Morocco), showing location of the quarries of Sidi Chennane (circle) where Eritherium azzouzorum has been found


Eritherium provides a new major, and one of the oldest known calibration point of the phylogeny of the placental orders. It is especially important for the calibration of the placental molecular trees.


1) UMR 7207 (MNHN/CNRS/Université Pierre et Marie Curie), Center for Research on Paleobiodiversity and Paleoenvironments ;
2) Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique
3) Paleontological research Agreement MNHN-OCP-Ministry of Energy and Mines (Rabat)-University Cadi Ayyad (Marrakech)-University Chouaib Doukkali (El Jadida) ; see View web site
4) 55 millions years discovered in 1996 by the same team
5) The elephant order or Proboscidea includes only 3 living species, but it has a very long and rich evolutionary history which is illustrated by 180 fossil species.
6) Archaic ungulates which evolved at the end of the Cretaceous and the beginning of the Tertiary, and which includes the stem groups of the modern ungulates, as well as many extinct herbivorous lineages.
7) The transition between Paleocene and Eocene occured aproximatively 55 millions years ago.


Emmanuel Gheerbrant. Paleocene emergence of elephant relatives and the rapid radiation of African ungulates. PNAS, 22 juin 2009.


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