African elephants: a modern analog

By Matthew Mihlbachler

Because Paleoindians most certainly exploited Proboscideans, they must have shared an intricate ecological relationship that was important in shaping both the lives of the people and the elephants. How and why they hunted these herbivorous gargantuans is perhaps the most elusive aspect of their lives. In order to shed some light on this conundrum, the ecology of the modern African elephant is a useful analogy for the ecological role that mastodons and mammoths played at the end of the Pleistocene in Florida. Due to the biological necessities of immense body size, all Proboscideans have a unique ecological role defined by their need for great quantities of food, water and habitat and by their great muscular strength.

These combined attributes give them an unparalleled ability to completely terraform any area that they occupy. Proboscideans do not simply live in places that are suitable to them. They alter the land to suit their needs.

East Africa, for example, is known for many wildlife parks where large elephant herds can be seen. The landscape of these parks ranges from savanna to forest scrub. The forest never grows dense and the land remains open. Animals are easily seen in this environment by tourists. We can imagine the same for prehistoric elephant hunters. The elephants themselves are largely responsible for building this unique sort of environment. We can expect that the Pleistocene Proboscideans of Florida also created and maintained a unique habitat that no longer exists on this continent.

The distribution of water sources is especially important in defining where elephants can roam. Modern open country elephants of East Africa are left without water sources for the dry season. To avoid dehydration they literally create watering holes in areas where there are none by digging holes until they tap into ground water. They maintain these holes and the supply of vital water allows elephants to remain in the area and consume the local vegetation.

In their never-ending quest for great quantities of herbage, they push over many trees, strip bark from trees and, in the process, kill them. Smaller plants are torn right out of the ground and eaten whole. Elephants also graze on grass, usually ripping the entire plant, roots and all, right out of the ground.

The late Pleistocene of Florida was certainly much drier than today. This scenario, along with the presence of Probicideans tells us that here a similar phenomenon took place. Elephants utilized the available water such as the sinkholes in the Aucilla river. Heavy trampling around the water holes kept almost all vegetation out of the area. As a result, other animals probably were granted greater access to these areas to drink, rest and wallow. These sinkholes became centers of congregation for many species where Paleoindians could easily locate and exploit game.

For miles around, the elephants processed countless tons of vegetation. Mastodons probably pushed over trees, such as palms, to eat leaves and fruits. They also could have browsed on shorter plants, pulling them right out of the ground. Mammoths fed on all forms of graze, maintaining the open country of Pleistocene Florida.

Together these two Proboscidean species shaped the paleoenvironment of Florida long before humans discovered it. The earliest pioneers probably found open plains and areas that were sparsely populated with trees. Great numbers of the trees were stripped of their bark and smaller trees were pushed over.

Modern elephants are capable of pushing over trees of over a foot in diameter. Mammoths and mastodons of Florida were larger and could push over trees with even thicker trunks. A dense forest simply could not survive under the weight of their influence and only clumpy groups of trees and scrub could survive. The grasslands were tattered also. Elephants do not clip vegetation evenly as cattle do. They pull it out with their trunks or kick it up with their front feet. Hence, open lands consisted of small grass patches and bare, uprooted soil.

Elephants dig for minerals and create mud wallows that can eventually become large permanent holes. The geographical shape of the land would have been altered by this. Soils would be greatly exposed and erosion must have become more accelerated than at present.

This description evokes a more open landscape than the lust subtropical forest that surrounds the Aucilla River today. In this view elephants may be no better than humans in creating wastelands and devastating habitats. After an area is cleaned out, the elephants move on to lay waste to another area.

Today in East Africa overpopulation is a serious threat to elephant herds. Being restricted to national parks, they are capable of destroying all of their available habitat at a faster rate than it can recover. Modern elephant observations tell us that extinct Proboscideans could have destroyed their own resources beyond recovery.

Despite the destruction, elephants are capable of maintaining an ecological system where their immense size helps shape the physical surroundings. They also provide open habitats that are desirable for large numbers of other animals. Prehistoric Florida was filled with many different huge animals that were all quite successful. Giant sloths, bison, glyptodonts, horses, camels, tapir, peccary, deer, giant beaver, capybara and a host of other mammals seemed to inhabit the altered Proboscidean landscape, and presumably benefited from it.

When people entered these areas, they probably had to alter their survival strategies. They were no longer dealing with arctic tundra or pine forest. Nor were they hunting the tundra dwelling Woolly mammoth. Now they were dealing with the Colombian mammoth and the American mastodon.

In this new environment, more like an African savanna, with two species of Proboscideans never before encountered, it is likely that a new hunting strategy had to be created and a new way of life formed. The environment was open and filled with visible game. It is remarkable that early Floridians continued hunting elephants at all given that there were slow moving sloths and smaller animals such as deer to prey on. Because Proboscideans continued to be utilized by these people it shows how important elephants really had become to the first New World inhabitants.