Meet Advait Jukar, a scientist who studies fossil elephants
Meet Advait Jukar, a scientist who studies fossil elephants Paleontologist Advait Jukar touches a fossil elephant skull while Smithsonian Science How co-host Maggy Benson watches. (Jennifer Renteria/Smithsonian/National Postal Museum)
Meet Advait Jukar, a scientist who studies fossil elephants
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Advait Jukar loved the extinct monsters of deep time as a kid. These monsters include dinosaurs. And they include mammoths. This is why he feels so lucky now. He gets to study these fossil giants every day. He is a paleontologist. He works at the National Museum of Natural History. Advait specializes in the study of fossil elephants. And he studies their extinct relatives. These include mastodons. It includes mammoths. It also includes gomphotheres. 

"I love elephants not only because they're charismatic and have an incredibly interesting evolutionary history, but also because in many ways, they're like us. They live in complex social groups and exhibit a range of emotions. If we let the remaining species go extinct, that entire branch of the mammal tree of life is gone forever. I hope that never happens."

The earliest elephant relatives originated in Africa. This was about 60 million years ago. They dispersed to every continent on earth. They didn't disperse to Antarctica. They also didn't disperse to Australia. There are about 165 known elephant species from the fossil record. 

Scientists estimate that there would have been many more that we haven't found yet in this branch of the evolutionary tree of life. In Earth's more recent history there were 16 species of elephants. This also includes their relatives. This was between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago. The elephants were living at the same time around the world. There were at least seven species in the United States. Today, there are only three species of elephants that remain. These include the African savannah elephant. Its scientific name is Loxodonta Africana. It includes the African forest elephant. Its scientific name is Loxodonta cyclotis. It also includes the Asian elephant. Its scientific name is Elephas maximus. Populations of all three species are declining. Asian elephants are at a much higher risk of extinction.

Today's elephants are part of the order Proboscidea. It consists of modern elephants. In also includes their extinct relatives. These relatives include mastodons. It includes mammoths. It also includes gomphotheres. All of the animals in this group have a proboscis. This is the trunk. They use it to eat. And they use it to drink. Today there are only two surviving elephant genera. The African elephant. And the Asian elephant. Their evolutionary history is much more diverse. 

Paleobiologists like Advait use fossils to better discover new species of fossil elephants. They reveal what they may have looked like. They reveal what they ate. They reveal how they were related to one another. Watch a brief video to see how he does his work. 

Tune into a live webcast. It's on Thursday, December 12, 2019. You will meet Advait. You will learn how he studies fossil elephants. This is at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. And you can ask him questions. 

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