The Story of the Elephant
by George Langford, Sr., Joliet, Illinois, after 1920 and prior to 1947
Edited and Copyrighted by George Langford, III, 2010
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I.
The Beast of Moeris.

In Vostani - Central Egypt - about sixty miles southwest of Cairo and forty miles west of the River Nile, are the Qasr-el-Saga rocks of the Fayum. This region, now part of the great Libyan Desert, lies buried beneath an endless expanse of wind-blown sand, which all but conceals 1600 feet depth of rock-layers accumulated during ancient geological times.  It is a desolate country today, a three days journey from the nearest drinking water. True, Lake Moeris is close by but its contents are salty and more bitter than the waters of the Dead Sea.  But once this was a fertile spot overgrown with luxurious vegetation, whose remains are today scattered about the desert in petrified fragments.  The Age of Dinosaurs and other great reptiles had passed and Mammals were making themselves known in the world. Bahr Bela Ma - the Waterless River - was then the border of a great inland sea, where now only a drop remains - Lake Moeris.

In the Pleistocene or most modern of the geological periods, this was a much larger body of water than now and perfectly fresh. The rocks about it were deposited during the Eocene, Oligocene and Miocene periods. Eocene is a Greek name meaning "dawn-recent," as being the beginning of the Age of Mammals.  The latter, which is said to have begun four million years ago, more or less is divided into five geological periods, and beginning with the oldest, these are: Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene and Pleistocene, all represented by layers of rock piled on top of one another with the oldest at the bottom.  In the Fayum region, the Eocene period is represented by the lowermost layers over 200 feet thick, known as the Birket-el-Qurun deposits.  The sea must have been close by in those very early days, for in these rocks are fossil bones of Yoke-toothed Whales (Zeuglodons).  But later during early Oligocene times, as shown in the 500 foot thickness above, the ocean waters had receded and various Mammals dwelt nearby.  Around them lived great land tortoises and serpents, while in the distant ocean swam snakes and turtles and the Yoke-toothed Whales or old sea-settlers of that region.  The latter were of very primitive type.   Once they had waddled about in the marshes, but having developed a fondness for salt water, they made their homes in it.  Having no more need of legs as such, their front ones became flippers and the hind ones disappeared altogether.

Three animals among others lived in this region; not brothers and sisters but cousins many times removed.  They were the Sea Cow, Hyrax and a third mysterious creature yet to be described. 

These three were about as unlike in appearance as they could possibly be, but appearances are often deceptive.  Teeth and bones tell the true story and structurally, the trio had much in common.  The Sea Cow, like the Whales, had taken a strong fancy to ocean life quite early in her career.  Her front limbs became flippers, too but unlike the Whales, her hind limbs yet remained, although much shrivelled from disuse and no longer needed.

The Hyrax [Hyracotherium ? - GL,III] was a coney-like creature with small hoofs instead of claws. He not only preferred land to water but wanted it perfectly dry.  Consequently he was inclined to keep farther inland, where he could always find a firm footing.  The result was that he and the Sea Cow must have finally come to look upon each other as total strangers.

The third and mysterious creature was the Beast of Moeris (Moeritherium) neither a sea animal nor a bone-dry land lover but something between - a marsh-dweller. We may call her Meri for short.

Merl was a tapir-like creature about three feet tall at the shoulders - a good stature for these ancient times.  She was plump - not fat - and her limbs were small round pillars, well-proportioned to her robust figure.  She had round paddies for feet and these were so well adapted to soft ground that she felt as much at home in the marshes as did the Sea Cow and Hyrax in their chosen elements.

Meri loved water - to drink and splash around in and she loved land too, because she could stand on it and because it furnished the food she liked best; soft leaves, rushes and other green things that grew in low wet places.  She was a born gardener and spent most of her time waddling about in the mud, inspecting her various plants.  Her gardening tools were all combined in one - her lower jaws. Two of the incisor or front teeth were developed much more than the others and projected almost straight forward.  With the jaws for a handle, they made an excellent digging tool, and Meri was forever grubbing with it among her plants.

And now for a secret, the telling of which at this late day can harm nobody.  To all appearances, the Beast of Moeris was a harmless little body who attended to nobody's business but her own. She reigned supreme in the marshes and not a soul knew nor cared.  But she had strange teeth to chew with and two of the upper and lower front ones girdled with hard enamel, projected beyond her lips.  None of her relatives and acquaintances had the slightest suspicion of what these things meant nor would we have known, had not the rocks about and above her told us. The little marsh-dweller and digger was destined to play an important part in the development of one of the most aristocratic animal families in all the world - the Mastodons, first of the great race of Elephants.

As far back as 1879, bones of the Yoke-toothed Whales were found in the bluffs overlooking the fertile lands of the Fayum, but not until the British Museum and Egyptian Survey explorations, beginning 1901 and ending 1905, were the remains of ancestral elephants discovered in these deposits.  At first, very little about the Beast of Moeris' head suggested the Elephant but Dr. Andrews of the British Museum expedition soon pointed out that certain resemblances in the skull, although remote, were in keeping with elephantine peculiarities. The nasal bones were small, and the nose openings were placed somewhat backward, indicative of a flexible snout.  The smaller these bones, the larger the openings, and the farther backward they are, the longer and more flexible the snout.  A second feature was the tendency for the rear part of the skull to assume a cellular structure.  Three other characteristics suggestive of the elephant, were the enlargement of two upper and two lower incisors into tusks, the transversely ridged molar surfaces and the spout-shaped chin.  None of these peculiarities were developed to an unusual degree, and it cannot be claimed that Meri was directly ancestral to later mastodons or elephants.  It would probably be nearer the truth to say that she was one of a very ancient stock related to the coney-like Hyrax and Sea-Cow as well as to early members of the Mastodon family.

She was an early Oligocene animal, and when we consider that the Horse began in the Eocene period as a little creature no bigger than a fox, and that his next appearance in the Oligocene represents him as about the size of a sheep, we can by comparison infer that the ancestral Eocene elephant was no larger than an ordinary pig.  The rocks are as yet silent on this matter, although no doubt they will in time disclose something.  But regardless of what may be discovered, Meri is on the ground and is entitled to first claim as being the most ancient animal known to be related, to if not an actual member of, the primitive Elephant family.  We must therefore accept her as the first lady in Elephant Land until one better offers.

Meri's most pronounced elephantine peculiarity was her teeth and before plunging into this subject, a few words are needed by way of explanation.  The tooth-scheme of all mammals is a winning combination, 4-11-44; four jaws, eleven teeth in each jaw, forty-four teeth in all.  Three small teeth in the front of each jaw are incisors used for gnawing or nipping; behind them is a single canine best developed in flesh-eaters for tearing and piercing; behind that are four premolars, first and smallest of the chewing set growing larger as they progress backward to the three molars which bear the brunt of mastication. This series of eleven teeth is repeated in each of the four jaws.  Forty-four were too many for most animals, and so a few of the least useful were as a rule dispensed with.  Our modern pig is one who has always clung to the full set.  Trust a hog to keep all he can get.  On the other hand, the south American Ant Bear has not a tooth in his head.

Meri's two upper first premolars had dropped out at some time or other, thereby reducing the upper set to twenty.  In her lower jaws, two incisors, the two canines and the first premolars were also absent, bringing the lower series down to sixteen, or a total of thirty-six in all four jaws.  The three premolars, originally four, were a second set which had replaced the first baby or milk-teeth, and this replacement had been accomplished vertically, a mode of tooth succession common to all other mammals.  It would be well to bear in mind this vertical replacement method, for later on it was to undergo an important change.  Each milk-tooth was pushed up and out by a permanent tooth growing in the jaw beneath it.  This refers to each lower jaw.  In the upper ones, the permanent teeth grew above and push downward.  The original molars remain fixed and had no successors.  They, more than the premolars, were responsible for Meri's claims to being the first known relative of the Mastodon family.

Mastodon is a Greek word meaning nipple-tooth which alludes to the cone-shape tubercles on the grinding surface.  Meri's upper grinders or molars had each four cone-shaped projections arranged in pairs, each pair separated from the other by a deep unobstructed valley.  Such teeth are (pilophodont) "two-crested".  They could crush but were unsuitable for pulverizing hay or other hard tough substance.  Soft green fodder served them best and as such food was abundant and to Meri's liking, she prospered accordingly. Her big upper incisors made as good pruning-knives as her lower ones did a digging tool and the enamel covering all four, kept them from wearing out when they struck each other.  Her manner of using these implements, and particularly her fondness for digging, were characteristic of the early mastodons who had formed such habits to an extent that may have been in great measure responsible for the peculiar course of elephant development.
[from the original, typewritten draft with hand-written corrections - GL,III, ed.]
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