Miscalibrated Internet Receptor Stalks
Miscalibrated Internet Receptor Stalks
Illustration for article titled On elephants and mastodons

An article two weeks ago interested me and I finally had time today to dissect it a little.

Let’s dissect this interesting article

Ancient Elephants and Mastodons Were Totally Down With Inter-Species Boning

I start having questions with the title. Why use the hyphenated spelling of the word interspecies? The title chooses to use two terms (“ancient elephants” and “mastodons”) that an audience might not know are different so I look forward to the article discussing why mastodons are not elephants. Oh also I find this tweet by a quoted expert to be amusing, because the quoted expert expresses their discomfort with the title ha ha ha ha


Portion of a mural depicting a herd of mammoths walking near the Somme River in France (1916). Illustration: Charles R. Knight (American Museum of Natural History/Public Domain)

Why is no link given for this public domain image? It’s on Wikimedia, so it’s possible to give it a link.

The history of elephants—from gigantic woolly mammoths through to modern forest-dwelling pachyderms—is more complicated than we thought.


This sentence is great because it, right off the bat, defines elephants as a group inclusive of mammoths. I’m slightly confused by how woolly mammoths are “gigantic” if they were around the same size of modern elephants but whatever.

Elephants—both those from the ancient past and those living today—were shaped by this mating practice, but it’s not something the two remaining species of elephants are into anymore.


? There are three remaining species of elephant.

Interbreeding among closely related mammalian species is fairly common. Good examples today are brown bears and polar bears, Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, and Eurasian gold jackals and grey wolves.


These examples seemed to be a rather interesting mix and so I had to look that up and that’s when I realized that these two sentences are almost entirely pulled from the McMaster University press release (available via Phys.org or ScienceDaily), which included this sentence:

Interbreeding among closely related mammals is fairly common, say researchers, who point to examples of brown and polar bears, Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, and the Eurasian gold jackal and grey wolves.


But that kind of activity is not new for this author so whatever.

Crushed woolly mammoth bone used for DNA extraction. Image: JD Howell (McMaster University)


I find it interesting that Gizmodo and/or this author feels that this image has to be properly cited but the press release that is quoted very liberally doesn’t have to be. It makes it appear that Gizmodo’s staff are told to give proper citations for other peoples’ images but told to feel free to use other peoples’ words. Also the substance in this image is dentin/dentine, which is not the same as bone, but whatever.

along with colleagues from McMaster, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Uppsala University, and the University of Potsdam,


There are thirty-seven authors on this paper and they list twenty-seven professional affiliations, although sometimes those are different departments at one place. The reason why these five institutions were named in the McMaster University press release (and therefore the Gizmodo article written from it) is because five authors were the “lead” authors (Palkopoulou, Lindblad-Toh, Hofreiter, Poinar, and Reich) and these are the institutions those authors are affiliated with.

multiple Woolly Mammoth genomes, a Columbian Mammoth genome (a scientific first), multiple Asian elephant genomes, a pair of African Forest elephant genomes, two Straight-tusked elephant genomes, two African Savanna elephant genomes, and, amazingly, a couple of American Mastodon genomes (which technically speaking aren’t elephants).


I do not at all understand some of the random capitalizations in this; it feels like the author thinks that informal names for animals should be capitalized? But then he didn’t use this same capitalization everywhere in the article? This phrase once again correctly says that mastodons are (technically speaking) not elephants, so kudos to the author for correctly stating that. This phrase explicitly names all three living species of elephant, but somehow the author doesn’t notice elsewhere that they wrote that there are only two living species of elephant. I do not know what is “amazing” about acquiring mastodon genomes, since researchers have been getting genetic data from mastodons for at least a decade.

the ancient Straight-tusked elephant—an extinct species that stomped around Europe between 780,000 and 50,000 years ago


That age range for the straight-tusked elephant is directly from the Wikipedia article on the straight-tusked elephant. But that kind of activity is also not new for this author so whatever.

The researchers also learned that the two still-living species of elephant, the Forest and Savanna elephants


? Those are two of the still-living species of elephant, not the only still-living species of elephant.

So are mastodons elephants?

Okay so this article never says why mastodons are not elephants. This article used “elephant” to mean “any member of Elephantidae.” If we are only talking about animals alive today, this isn’t that weird; there’s a species that was identified as the elephant (we call it the Asian elephant now, Elephas maximus) and eventually we recognized that two other species of elephant exist in Africa. Those two other species are placed into another genus, Loxodonta, because it was recognized that they look a bit different than the Asian elephant.


The potential problem with using a more inclusive definition of the word elephant (as this article does) is mammoths. Several extinct species within the group Elephantidae have been called mammoths, and mammoths are more closely related to the Asian elephant than either is to the African elephants. It’s arguably phylogenetically accurate to call all of these animals elephants but I think it’s worth telling that to the audience.

Anyway elephantids and mastodons diverged somewhere around 25 million years ago. They’re both proboscideans (a word never mentioned in the article) but they’re fairly genetically distinct from one another.


Kudos to the commenters

Given the state of the article some commenters felt a strong urge to step in and offer suggestions on fixing some problems. MissCellania tried to point out that three species of elephant are alive today and Raskos1 applied some general evolutionary biological and specific proboscidean knowledge. Kudos to them for doing what us Kinja commenters can to help make Kinja content better.

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