"How can we ever know what ancient animals ate? For the first time, the changing diets of elephants in the last two million years in China have been reconstructed, using a technique based on analysis of the surface textures of their teeth.
The work was carried out by a University of Bristol student, working with an international team of researchers. The research was published online in Quaternary International.
Today, elephants live only in remote, tropical parts of Africa and southern Asia, but before the Ice Ages they were widespread.
As his undergraduate research project, Zhang Hanwen, MSci Palaeontology and Evolution graduate and now PhD student at the University of Bristol, undertook cutting-edge analysis of fossilised elephant teeth from China.
In a collaboration with the University of Leicester, and the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, where the fossilised teeth are curated, Hanwen sampled 27 teeth for tiny wear patterns called microwear.
"We are talking huge, brick-sized molars here – the largest of any animal," said Hanwen, "but the signs of tooth wear are tiny, down to thousandths of a millimetre. However, these microscopic surface textures can tell us whether they were eating grass or leaves."
Hanwen took peels of the fossilised teeth in China, using high-grade dental moulding materials, and captured the 3-D surface textures under a digital microscope at the University of Leicester. The textures were quantified and analysed to identify what the elephants were eating in the days and weeks before they died.
By comparing the results with information from modern ruminants (deer, antelopes and oxen) of known diet, the study concluded two extinct elephants from Southern China – Sinomastodon and Stegodon – were primarily browsing on leaves. The third, Elephas, which includes the modern Asian elephants, shows much more catholic feeding habit, incorporating both grazing and browsing".