Morphological description and identification of an extraordinary new elephant cranium from the early Pliocene of Ileret, Kenya
Elephantidae; Loxodonta adaurora; cranium; early Pliocene; Ileret; Kenya
Abstract: Paleontological exploration in the Turkana Basin near Ileret, Kenya yielded the most complete adult elephant cranium (KNM-ER 63642) known from the late Miocene to mid-Pliocene. KNM-ER 63642 derives from the lower Lonyumun Mb. of the Koobi Fora Fm. and dates to the early Pliocene, >4.3 Ma. The cranium is immense in size and preserves most of its structures including left and right M2-3, permitting its comprehensive comparative study and secure taxonomic assignment to Loxodonta adaurora. Features distinctive of the species and exhibited by KNM-ER 63642 include very elongate, divergent tusk alveoli, a short, biconvex cranial roof, anterosuperior angulation of the occipital planum, non-inflated occipital planum and absence of supralateral parietal "bossing," broad, flat premaxillary nasal processes, broad, laterally downturned nasal aperture superior to the level of the orbits, and M3s with wide, subhypsodont plates that are parallel-faced and separated by U-shaped transverse valleys. The M3s also exhibit characteristic L. adaurora traits of greatest width at their bases, rounded cross-sectional shape, thick enamel, abundant cementum, and strong anterior and posterior accessory conules. Of extant taxa, KNM-ER 63642 most closely resembles crania of African elephants. Its inclusion in the Loxodonta clade is tenuous, however, because shared features are either symplesiomorphic or are difficult to test for synapomorphy due to the poor fossil record of crania of late Miocene-early Pliocene elephants. Overall, the cranial morphology of KNM-ER 63642 is unexpectedly advanced for an elephant of its antiquity. Its anteroposterior compression and height are concordant with efficient proal masticatory action, indicating that by the early Pliocene L. adaurora evolved craniodental adaptations in phase with feeding preference for C4 grasses. The advantage of synchrony of morphology and behavior is reflected by the dominance of the species in the greater Turkana Basin during that interval.
Published in 44-2 (2021)