Temporal range: Late Eocene
|Moeritherium lyonsi as it appeared in Walking with Beasts|
C.W. Andrews, 1906
C.W. Andrews, 1901
Moeritherium ('the beast from Lake Moeris') is a genus consisting of several species. These prehistoric mammals are related to the elephant and, more distantly, the sea cow. They lived during the Eocene epoch.
The Moeritherium species were animals that lived about 37-35 million years ago, and probably looked like a cross between a tapir and a hippo. They were smaller than modern elephants, standing only 70 centimetres (2.3 ft) high at the shoulder and were about 3 metres (9.8 ft) long. They are believed to have wallowed in swamps and rivers, filling the ecological niche now filled by the hippopotamus. The shape of their teeth suggest that they ate soft water vegetation.
The shape of the skull suggests that Moeritherium did not have an elephant-like trunk, but it may have had a broad flexible upper lip like a tapir's for grasping aquatic vegetation. The second incisor teeth formed small tusks, although these would have looked more like the teeth of a hippo than a modern elephant.
Moeritherium is not believed to be an ancestor of modern elephants; it was a branch of the order that died out, leaving no descendants. There were several species of early elephants in existence during the Eocene, and some, such as Paleomastodon, looked relatively similar to modern elephants. However, Moeritherium typified a branch of the family that evolved in a quite different way, having only a stubby trunk and short legs.
The first fossils of Moeritherium were discovered in the Egyptian Fayum in 1904. It is also found in other sites around North and West Africa. By 36 million years ago there were already several members of the elephant family - some of them looked pretty similar to modern elephants. Moeritherium, however, was a bit of a side branch who seems to have adopted a hippo-like lifestyle, and didn't have the familiar trunk or tusks.
In Popular Culture
Moeritherium was seen in the second episode of the BBC documentary Walking with Beasts.