Meet Advait Jukar, a scientist who studies fossil elephants
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As a kid, Advait Jukar loved the extinct monsters of deep time. Some examples of these monsters are dinosaurs and mammoths. This is why he feels so lucky now. He gets to study these fossil giants every day as a paleontologist at the National Museum of Natural History. Advait specializes in the study of fossil elephants and their extinct relatives. These include mastodons, mammoths, and 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 about 60 million years ago. They dispersed to every continent on earth, except Antarctica and 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, between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago, there were 16 species of elephants and their relatives living at the same time around the world. This includes at least seven in the United States. Today, there are only three species of elephants that remain. These include the African savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana), the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) and the Asian elephant (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 which consists of modern elephants and their extinct relatives. These relatives include mastodons, mammoths and gomphotheres. All of the animals in this group have a proboscis, or trunk. They use it to eat and drink. Today there are only two surviving elephant genera, the African and 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, what they ate and how they were related to one another. Watch a brief video to see how he does his work.
Tune into a live webcast on Thursday, December 12, 2019, to meet Advait. You will learn how he studies fossil elephants at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and you can ask him questions.