Stable isotope evidence for an amphibious phase in early proboscidean evolution

Alexander G S C Liu, Erik R. Seiffert, Elwyn L. Simons

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

34 Citations (Scopus)


The order Proboscidea includes extant elephants and their extinct relatives and is closely related to the aquatic sirenians (manatees and dugongs) and terrestrial hyracoids (hyraxes). Some analyses of embryological, morphological, and paleontological data suggest that proboscideans and sirenians shared an aquatic or semiaquatic common ancestor, but independent tests of this hypothesis have proven elusive. Here we test the hypothesis of an aquatic ancestry for advanced proboscideans by measuring δ 18O in tooth enamel of two late Eocene proboscidean genera, Barytherium and Moeritherium, which are sister taxa of Oligocene-to-Recent proboscideans. The combination of low δ 18O values and low δ 18O standard deviations in Barytherium and Moeritherium matches the isotopic pattern seen in aquatic and semiaquatic mammals, and differs from that of terrestrial mammals. δ 13C values of these early proboscideans suggest that both genera are likely to have consumed freshwater plants, although a component of C 3 terrestrial vegetation cannot be ruled out. The simplest explanation for the combined evidence from isotopes, dental functional morphology, and depositional environments is that Barytherium and Moeritherium were at least semiaquatic and lived in freshwater swamp or riverine environments, where they grazed on freshwater vegetation. These results lend new support to the hypothesis that Oligocene-to-Recent proboscideans are derived from amphibious ancestors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5786-5791
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number15
Publication statusPublished - 15 Apr 2008


  • Barytherium
  • Eocene
  • Fayum
  • Moeritherium
  • Proboscidea


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