Denizens of Madrid’s Miocene woods: the Mastodons
One of the most important faunal events during the early Miocene of Europe was the arrival of the first proboscideans, or elephant relatives, some 19 million years ago. Those wonderful beasts left their African home when land bridges allowed, and spread throughout Eurasia, eventually to cross the Bering bridge into North America. Wherever they arrived, they did not simply become a part of the landscape: they changed it, acting on the vegetation like a sort of biological bulldozers that contributed to the spread of grassy patches and to keep the forests at bay.
Those early proboscideans, popularly known as mastodons, were rather different from our modern elephants. Gomphotherium, the most widespread genus from the early and middle Miocene, is a good example of the classic mastodon. Short-legged and robust, it had a body mass comparable to that of an Asian elephant, but was considerably less tall at the shoulders. Like most proboscidean species of the Miocene, it had four tusks, one pair on the maxilla and another one at the end of the elongated mandible, giving the animal a bizarre (to our eyes) appearance. And its cheek teeth had a more simple pattern, adapted to process softer vegetation than in the case of true elephants, mostly leaves and twigs -no grass.
Ever since then and until the end of the Pleistocene ( a “mere” 10,000 years ago), the landscapes of Eurasia and North America were never without proboscideans of one kind or another, often with more than one species coexisting at the same time. For that reason, African and Indian wilderness offer important references to imagine how the vegetation of prehistoric Eurasia and North America would have been influenced by the action of such phenomenal creatures.