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Bones of elephant ancestors discovered in Oman

A team of geologists from the Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) have confirmed discovery of remains of the oldest ancestors of elephant (Barhtyerium), according to a press release from the university Saturday. 

Fossil discovered in Dhofar region in south of Oman [Credit: Gulf News]
The Omani Barytherium, the first one to be found in Oman, was discovered in Aidum area in Dhofar by a joint team of archaeologists from the Ministry of Heritage and Culture and Stony Brook University, US, and geologists from SQU.  

The archaeological team was led by Dr Erick Seifert from the Stony Brook University.  

The SQU team of geologists, including Prof Dr Sobhi Nasir and Dr Abdulrahman Al Harthy joined the Heritage Ministry consultant at the site in south of the country and assisted in establishing the discovery.  

The joint team found a huge area of elephant bones, known as elephant grabs, and collected large quantities of bones to be identified in a laboratory at the SQU.  

The group of researchers from SQU, SBU and the Ministry of Heritage are still working on these bones and are expecting new discoveries in the area.  

The team has said that this finding is extremely important as it gives the first evidence of the oldest ancestor of elephant found in the world.  

The scientists named the new finding as Barytherium Omansi.  

Barytherium (meaning heavy beast) is a genus of an extinct family (Barytheriidae) of primitive proboscidean that lived during the late Eocene and early Oligocene in North Africa. The Barytheriidae were the first large size proboscideans to appear in the fossil records and were characterised by a strong sexual dimorphism.  

The only known species within this family is Barytherium grave, found at the beginning of the 20th century in the Fayum, Egypt.  

More complete specimens have been found since then, at Dor el Talha Libya. In some respects, these animals would have looked similar to a modern Asian Elephant, but with a more slender build.  

Eight tusks 

The most visible difference, however, would have been the tusks Barytherium had eight very short tusks, four each in the upper and lower jaws, which resembled those of a modern hippopotamus more than those of an elephant. The upper pairs were vertical, while the lower pairs projected forwards from the mouth horizontally. Together, these would have created a shearing action for cropping plants.  

Palaeontologists know a lot more about Barytherium's tusks, which tend to preserve better in the fossil record than soft tissue, than they do about its trunk.  

This prehistoric elephant had eight short, stubby tusks, four in its upper jaw and four in its lower jaw, but to date no one has unearthed any evidence for its proboscis (which may or may not have looked like that of a modern elephant). 

Source: Gulf News [May 21, 2011]


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