Platybelodon: This Prehistoric Elephant Had a Huge Spork for a Mouth
by Matt Simon
Russian writer Anton Chekhov insisted that everything irrelevant to a work of fiction be removed — if you describe a rifle mounted on the wall, someone had better fire it off at some point. This dramatic principle is called Chekhov’s gun, and it actually applies quite well to the natural world: Animals don’t waste energy developing worthless characteristics. Traits that help a species survive get passed along through generations, while those that are no longer useful fade away (or in the stubbornly contrary case of the human appendix, abruptly explode).
If Chekhov had time-traveled back between 8 million and 20 million years and met Platybelodon — an ancestor of the modern elephant that looked like it got hit in the face with a shovel, then absorbed that shovel into its mouth — he would have demanded the creature explain itself. What possible purpose could such a ridiculous trait serve? “A good one, thank you very much,” Platybelodon would reply, probably in a really funny voice.
The spork-faced Platybelodon’s strange jutting jaw actually consists of a second pair of flattened, widened tusks (tusks themselves being modified incisors). When the genus Platybelodon, which means “flat tooth,” and its species were first described in the 1920s, “their lower incisors were thought to function to shovel, scoop, dig and dredge soft vegetation in aquatic or swampy environments,” vertebrate paleontologist William Sanders of the University of Michigan wrote in an email to WIRED. “But recent analysis of tusk wear surfaces show that they were used more as scythes to cut tough vegetation.”…
(read more: Wired Science)
illustration by Tomasz Jedrzejowski