Prehistoric elephants discovered in Taufkirchen an der Vils - Triops Galaxy

Prehistoric elephants discovered in Taufkirchen an der Vils near Munich

The animals, which weighed up to 13 tonnes and were over four metres tall, belonged to the genus Deinotherium, or more precisely to the species Deinotherium giganteum. This genus is characterised by the downward-curved tusks in the lower jaw. Many other prehistoric elephants at that time had four tusks: two in the upper jaw and two in the lower jaw. One upper arm bone of these animals weighs 100 kilograms and the shoulder blade has a diameter of almost one metre. Exceptionally well-preserved remains of three animals were discovered in the district of Erding, which experts regard as a sensation in terms of the quantity and condition of the bones. On Monday, Peter Kapustin, director and founder of the Prehistoric Museum in Taufkirchen an der Vils, presented the discovery.

Many remains of prehistoric elephants from Bavaria

Kapustin’s sons, aged nine and ten, discovered the first bones a year ago while searching for fossils with their father in a fox den. Now around 120 bones have been found, including the skull and tusks of a 70 per cent preserved young animal. This is ‘spectacular’, says Gertrud Rößner, head conservator for fossil mammals at the Bavarian State Collection of Palaeontology and Geology, who was involved in the evaluation of the find. ‘We know that these prehistoric elephants lived here. But relatively complete skeletons are rare.’ Kapustin, a trained business economist and self-taught palaeontologist, had repeatedly explored the area. The skull of a Deinotherium was found near Langenpreising back in 2004.

This is the largest site ever discovered for the Deinotheria, Europe’s largest land mammals, said geological taxidermist Nils Knötschke. He described it as a stroke of luck for science. The second well-preserved animal was already larger and older, but not yet fully grown, which also shows the development of the animals. The two better preserved animals were given the provisional names ‘Little Consti’ and ‘Big Alex’ by their finders, Kapustin’s sons. A month-long search by volunteers then began, during which the bones of a big cat and a primal rhinoceros were also discovered. It is assumed that the bones of the animals – including the cat – were washed up in a river at the time.

‘We had to be a bit tricky to prepare the recovery. We didn’t want to destroy anything.’ The bones were then recovered in a plaster casing. It is unclear why the bones of the prehistoric elephants were all found in one place. One possible explanation could be that, like modern elephants, they went to a certain place to die and it was therefore a prehistoric ‘elephant cemetery’, according to head conservator Rößner. ‘But it’s impossible to say for sure.’ A relatively large number of remains of prehistoric elephants are known from Bavaria, including around five partial skeletons, including the finds from Erding. Of particular note is a gomphotherium discovered in 1971 near Mühldorf am Inn, which is almost complete with almost 200 bones and whose replica is on display in the Bavarian State Collection.

However, Bavaria was not a special ‘elephant country’. The remains of the prehistoric elephants have been preserved comparatively well and close to the surface in today’s southern Free State due to the favourable geological conditions in the Molasse Basin north of the Alps. Around 18 to 2.5 million years ago, numerous urelephants lived in what is now Europe. The reason for their extinction probably lies in the climatic and associated ecological changes. There was no frost until 14 million years ago, when crocodiles and giant tortoises also lived here. ‘Then it gradually became cooler and drier.’ Until around 14,000 years ago, the last species of proboscidean in this region were the woolly mammoths.

Sladjan Lazic

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