Temporal range: 12–.006Ma Miocene - Holocene
|Platybelodon skeleton in a Hubei, China, museum|
The Gomphotheriidae were a diverse taxonomic family of extinct elephant-like animals (proboscideans). Referred to as gomphotheres, they were widespread in North America during the Miocene and Pliocene epochs, 12–1.6 million years ago. Some lived in parts of Eurasia, Beringia and, following the Great American Interchange, South America. Beginning about 5 million years ago, they were gradually replaced by modern elephants, but the last two South American species, in the genus Cuvieronius, did not finally become extinct until possibly as recently as 9,100 BP, and Stegomastodon remains have been dated as recently as 6,060 BP in the Valle del Magdalena, Colombia. Gomphotheres also survived in Mexico and Central America until the end of the Pleistocene.
The name "gomphothere" comes from Ancient Greek γόμφος, "peg, pin; wedge; joint" plus θηρίον, "beast".
Gomphotheres differed from elephants in their tooth structure, particularly the chewing surfaces on the molar teeth. Most had four tusks, and their retracted facial and nasal bones prompt paleontologists to believe that gomphotheres had elephant-like trunks. The early gomphotheres, such as Phiomia, had elongated upper and lower jaws, with relatively short tusks. Two lineages appear to have arisen from these ancestors. One, including animals such as Anancus, developed the short lower jaw typical of modern elephants, while the others, including Platybelodon, developed the lower jaw into an elongated 'shovel', and shortened the upper jaw.
The systematics and phylogeny of gomphotheres are unclear and the group might in fact be paraphyletic – i.e., it may not include all known descendants of their common ancestor. The genus Gnathabelodon is often placed in its own family, the Gnathabelodontidae, and Archaeobelodon, Protanancus, Amebelodon, Platybelodon and Serbelodon are sometimes regrouped in a separate family, the Amebelodontidae.
Gomphotheres feeding habits are portrayed as scooping up water plants due to their mandibular tusks which have a shovel like shape. However, this is a misconception because the upper tusks are never taken into consideration. The wear pattern on the mandibular tusks of Platybelodon grangeri and P. barnumbrowni indicate that these taxa used their tusks to cut through vegetation in a specialized way.
Isotopic analyses for South American gomphotheres suggest a wide dietary for Notiomastodon platensis except for the localities in Santiago del Estero and La Carolina in Ecuador. Isotope analyses suggested an exclusive C4 diet, whereas every other South American locality indicate an exclusive C3 or mixed C3 and C4 diet. The results also support the latitudinal gradient of C3 and C4 grasses. The stereomicrowear analyses for N. platensis exhibited average scratch and pit values, which place it within the extant mixed-feeder morphospace and the higher frequency of fine scratches indicated the ingestion of C3 grasses. Alternatively, the presence of coarse and hypercoarse scratches along with gouges and large pits suggested the ingestion of foliage and lignified portions. The plant microfossil analysis recovered fragments of conifer tracheid and vessel elements with a ray of parenchyma cells, which corroborates the consumption of wood plants, pollen grains, spores, and fibers. The Aguas de Araxa gomphotheres were feeding generalists and consumed wood elements, leaves, and C3 grasses. Cuvieronius specimens from Chile were exclusively C3 plant eaters, whereas specimens from Bolivia and Ecuador had a mixed C3 and C4 diet. Stegomastodon showed a wider range of dietary adaptations. Specimens from Quequen Salado in Buenos Aires Province were entirely C3 feeders, whereas the diet of specimens from La Carolina Peninsula in Ecuador was exclusively C4.
Possible cause for extinction
The results confirm that the ancient diet and diet habits cannot always be interpreted solely from dental morphology or extrapolated from present relatives. The data from middle and late Pleistocene periods point out that over time, there was an adaptive change in dietary resources, away from one that favored predominantly mixed-feeders to more specialized feeders, and that this dietary evolution was one of the contributing causes that forced gomphotheres toward extinction in the late Pleistocene in South America. The remaining population probably succumbed to climatic change and/or human predation around the time of the Holocene margin.
Associations with early human sites
Gomphothere remains are common at South American Paleo-indian sites. Examples include the early human settlement at Monte Verde, Chile, dating to approximately 14,000 years ago, and the Valle del Magdalena, Colombia. In 2011, remains dating between 10,600 and 11,600 years ago were also found in the El Fin del Mundo (End of the World) site in Sonora, Mexico's Clovis location – the first time such an association was found in a northern part of the continent where gomphotheres had been thought to have gone extinct 30,000 years ago. In July 2014, it was announced that the "position and proximity of Clovis weapon fragments relative to the gomphothere bones at the site suggest that humans did in fact kill the two animals there. Of the seven Clovis points found at the site, four were in place among the bones, including one with bone and teeth fragments above and below. The other three points had clearly eroded away from the bone bed and were found scattered nearby." 
- Campbell, K. E., Frailey, C. D., & Romero Pittman, L. (2000). The Late Miocene Gomphothere Amahuacatherium peruvium (Proboscidea: Gomphotheriidae) from Amazonian Peru: Implications for the great american faunal interchange-[Boletín D 23]. INGEMMET.
- Shoshani, Jeheskel; Pascal Tassy (2005). "Advances in proboscidean taxonomy & classification, anatomy & physiology, and ecology & behavior". Quaternary International. 126-128: 5–20. doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2004.04.011.
- Rafael O. Labarca and Patrick G. Lopez, "Los mamíferos finipleistocénicos de la Formación Quebrada Quereo (IV Región-Chile): biogeografía, bioestratigrafía e inferencias paleoambientales", Mastozoología Neotropical, Volume 13, Number 1, (June 2006), 89-101
- Rodríguez-Flórez, Carlos David; Ernesto León Rodríguez-Flórez y Carlos Armando Rodríguez (2009). "Revision of Pleistocenic Gomphotheriidae Fauna in Colombia and case report in the Department of Valle Del Cauca" (PDF). Scientific Bulletin (Museum Center - Natural History Museum) 13 (2): 78–85. Retrieved 2010-11-09.
- Graham, R. W. (2001). "Late Quaternary Biogeography and Extinction of Proboscideans in North America" (PDF). In Cavarretta, G.; Gioia, P.; Mussi, M. et al. The World of Elephants (La Terra degli Elefanti) - Proceedings of the 1st International Congress (Atti del 1� Congresso Internazionale), Rome October 16-20 2001. Rome: Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche. pp. 707–709. ISBN 88-8080-025-6. Retrieved 2012-10-31.
- Palmer, D., ed. (1999). The Marshall Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals. London: Marshall Editions. pp. 239–242. ISBN 1-84028-152-9.
- J. Shoshani and P. Tassy. 2005. Advances in proboscidean taxonomy & classification, anatomy & physiology, and ecology & behavior. Quaternary International 126-128:5-20
- Lambert, David (1992) "The feeding habits of the shovel-tusked gomphotheres: Evidence from tusk wear patterns" Paleobiology 18.2 http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/2400995.pdf Retrieved October 2012
- Asevedo, Lidiane; Winck, Gisele R.; Mothe, Dimila; Avilla,Leonardo S. (2012) "Ancient Diet of the Pleistocene Gomphothere Notiomastodon Platensis (Mammalia, Proboscidea, Gomphotheriidae) from Lowland Mid-latitudes of South America: Stereomicrowear and Tooth Calculus Analyses Combined" Quaternary International 255 45-52
- Alberdi, Maria Teresa; Prado, José Luis; Perea, Daniel; Ubilla, Martin (2007) "Stegomastodon waringi (Mammalia, Proboscidea) from the Late Pleistocene of northeastern Uruguay" Neues Jahrbuch Für Geologie Und Paläontologie - Abhandlungen 243.2 179-189
- Sanchez, Begoña; Prado, José Luis; Alberdi, Maria Teresa (2004) "Feeding ecology, dispersal, and extinction of South American pleistocene gomphotheres (Gomphotheriidae, Proboscidea)" Paleobiology 30.1 146-161
- "Extinction of a gomphothere population from Southeastern Brazil: Taphonomic, paleoecological and chronological remarks", Quaternary International, Cristina Bertoni-Machado 2012) (abstract). Retrieved 16 June 2014.
- Prado, J. L.; Alberdi, M. T.; Azanza, B.; Sánchez, B.; Frassinetti, D. (2005). "The Pleistocene Gomphotheriidae (Proboscidea) from South America". Quaternary International. 126-128: 21–30. Bibcode:2005QuInt.126...21P. doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2004.04.012.
- "Finding would reveal contact between humans and gomphotheres in North America", Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 24 January 2011. Retrieved 26 May 2014.
- "Bones of elephant ancestor unearthed: Meet the gomphothere" Science Daily, 14 July 2014
- "Buried Treasure in the Sierra Nevada Foothills" (article about a fossil exhibit at the Sierra College Natural History Museum) on the Sierra College website
- Gomphothere description including images on the Sierra College website
- "King Tusk" Gomphothere Excavation, photos from the excavation of a Gomphothere skeleton on the Sierra College website
- The Gomphotheriidae, from the University of California Museum of Paleontology website