African Elephant (Loxodonta africana) teeth photographed in the Moremi Game Reserve, Okavango Delta, BotswanaCredit: Minden Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

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The ability of East African elephants to adapt to shifting environmental conditions is revealed in a new study, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Juha Saarinen, at the department of geosciences and geography at the University of Helsinki, in Finland, who led the study, said the team found evidence of the profound impact of climate change on the development of the teeth of proboscideans (elephants and their ancient relatives) about 23 million years ago.

The researchers used mesowear angle analysis, a method of studying the diets of proboscideans by measuring the wear on molar teeth. This new method allowed the analysis of large fossil datasets to assess the effect of dietary shifts and environmental changes on the evolution of proboscidean tooth morphology.

They found that alterations in diet correlate with environmental shifts and major dental adaptations followed changes in the masticatory system. Different dental traits emerged with high, multiridged molars evolving in response to arid environments and enamel folding associated with dietary changes.

“Mammalian teeth are relatively well represented in the fossil record, so they provide extensive material for understanding past environments, and the evolutionary interaction between mammals and their environments,” Saarinen said.