Elephant Has Spork for Mouth

Illustration: Tomasz Jedrzejowski - via WIRED

Do you remember the story of the blind men and the elephant? In that story, a group of blind men felt various parts of an elephant to describe the animal. The man who touched the tusk insisted that the elephant is like a spear, whereas the man who touched the body said that the animal is like a wall and the man who felt the leg said that it's like a tree trunk.

Well, add a shovel to that story and you'll get this absurd version of the elephant: Platybelodonfrom the Miocene Epoch (about 15 million to 4 million years ago), an ancestor of the modern elephant with a giant spork the size of a shovel in its mouth.

And when we said shovel, we meant shovel:

Images: Biodiversity Heritage Library/American Museum of Natural History

The "spork" is actually a second pair of flattened tusks or teeth (indeed, Platybelodon means "flat tooth.") They're related to other genera like Archaebelodon and Ambelodon, which are commonly known as "shovel tuskers."

So, why did the Platybelodon have such an unusual mouth? When the species was first identified in the 1920s, paleontologists thought that the animals used its mouth to shovel up aquatic and semi-aquatic vegetation. "... recent analysis of tusk wear surfaces show that they were used more as scythes to cut tough vegetation," stated vertebrate paleontologist William Sanders of the University of Michigan to WIRED.

Images: Margret Flinsch, under direction of Henry Fairfield Osborn.
Biodiversity Heritage Library/American Museum of Natural History Library

Read more about the fascinating Platybelodon over at this post by Matt Simon over at WIRED.

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