Much of China was home to elephants, but the records of elephants in northern China bothered scientists.
The Asian elephant (Elaphas maximus) is a tropical species that does roam up into southwestern provinces of China. It is poorly adapted to the cooler temperate climate that characterize much of central and northern China.
So was there an unusually cool climate-adapted subspecies of Asian elephant in China?
It turns out that the answer is no.
And the truth is more spectacular than we might have imagined.
A team of researchers in China examined the fossilized teeth of elephants from the Shang and Zhou Dynasties from 4,000 to 3,000 years ago and also examined elephant-shaped bronzes.
Their findings suggest that the elephants of North China were not Asian elephants but a relict species of a genus of elephant that was believe to have gone extinct 10,000 years ago.
The researchers believe that the elephants of North China were a late surviving species of Palaeoloxodon or “straight-tusked elephant.”
Now, one should be a bit skeptical of this research. Tooth morphology can have a tendency towards convergence. If these elephants actually were a subspecies of Asian elephant, it is possible that they might have evolved similar dentition to straight-tusked elephants, and one should be careful about making claims of animal morphology based upon artistic expression. Even photographic evidence can be somewhat dubious, so one needs to be careful about using artwork in this fashion.
That said, if these findings are corroborated with more evidence– say, an examination of a full elephant skeleton from that time period– then it will be one of the most amazing findings in recent years.
It’s only recently become clear that there are actually two species of elephant in Africa, and if these findings are further corroborated with more evidence, then Asia also had two species in historic times.