Elephant fossil returns to Barnstaple

23 June 2009

Fossils belonging to an ancient elephant uncovered in Barnstaple, North Devon, more than 160 years ago returned home for the 2nd annual Elephant Day, last Saturday.

Fossil molar of a juvenile elephant found in the same Barnstaple location

Fossil molar of a juvenile elephant found in the same Barnstaple location

The impressive fossilised molars belonged to an extinct adult straight-tusked elephant, Palaeoloxodon antiquus, that probably roamed the area around 120,000 years ago.

The molars had been looked after by the Natural History Museum since 1888 and were brought out for this special occasion, along with the single lower tooth of a young individual found at the same locality.

Locals and tourists enjoyed the fun day of activities and learnt about how this majestic mammal would have lived thousands of years ago.

Museum fossil expert, Andy Currant, was at the event and says, 'Elephant Day has been a fabulous opportunity for us as a museum to learn more about the history of specimens held in our collections.'

Revealing the elephant fossils
Andy Currant holds one of the fossil elephant molars

Museum fossil expert Andy Currant holds one of the fossil elephant molars he took to the annual Barnstaple Elephant Day

Andy Currant and Barnstaple Museum Officer, Alison Mills, had to dig deep to find out the history of the specimens. 

It began in February 1844, when a partial elephant skeleton was unearthed 4.5m (15 feet) below a site in Summerland Street, south Barnstaple. Some of these fossils were collected by Samuel Curtis Sharpe, who was Curate of Newport, and others were preserved locally.

Later, Sharpe sold or gave these fossils to Dr Thomas Wright, the famous Cotteswold fossil shell collector. 

In 1888, Wright’s collection was sold by the London dealer F H Butler to the then British Museum (Natural History), now the Natural History Museum.

Museum collection

So, the Barnstaple elephant fossils joined the Natural History Museum’s world-class palaeontology collection, which now has around 9 million specimens.

Molar fossil specimens

The Museum looks after 4 of the Barnstaple adult elephant molars and they are all between 30-40cm long. They also have the 2 lower teeth of a much younger individual from the same locality. 

The Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon has some remains of the same elephant including parts of its tusk.

The adult elephants would have had between 4 and 8 molars in their mouth at any one time. These mighty teeth were constantly worn down but they would have given these huge mammals the power to chew on a tree!

Ancient elephant
Close-up of the ridges on the elephant molar fossil. This helps identify it as an elephant

Close-up of the ridges on the elephant molar fossil. This helps identify it as a straight-tusked elephant rather than a mammoth.

The extinct Palaeoloxodon antiquus, was larger in size than both the Asian and African elephants. The species lived in Europe during the Middle and Late Pleistocene, 781,000–11,550 years ago. It flourished in Britain during the warmer periods between ice ages and died out around 115,000 years ago.

Later on, its role as a native British elephant was taken over by the woolly mammoth, one of the most characteristic animals of the last ice age.

Elephant or mammoth?

The ridges on the flat of the teeth help reveal whether the specimen is from a straight-tusked elephant rather than a mammoth. 

Currant explains, 'Specialists use a wide range of characters to tell the species apart and not every specimen necessarily shows all of these features, but there is no question as to the identity of the Barnstaple elephant!'

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