NEWS

Scientific safari finds ancient elephants hiding in Grevena

The hunt for animals that lived millions of years ago holds its own fascination. For 10 years, a team of researchers from the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki (APT) has been searching for the remains of the elephant they named Astrakhan in the mountains and streams of Grevena. Paleontologist Evangelia Tsoukala leads a team of speleologist friends and geology students to remote places in search of the largest animals ever to inhabit Greece. Their scientific safari has succeeded in finding the fossils of two huge pachyderms, one of them 200,000 years old, and the other 3 million years old. The older, larger animal has the largest tusks ever found. Like all hunters, the teams had luck on their side as well as expertise. In 1990, says Tsoukala, APT student Dimitris Zissopoulos collected some fossilized bones from land belonging to his grandfather on the outskirts of Grevena and brought them to our laboratory. When we examined them we realized that they were the bones of a prehistoric animal and we decided to conduct investigations in the area. Over the course of four years, from 1991 to 1995, the paleontology team discovered fossilized elephant remains near the mouth of a stream at Ambelia, at 585 meters altitude. Most of the fossils were found at the same site, where the four-meter-tall, 12-ton animal had died. But the first trophy was not easily found. The team had to dig deep, and then find ways of transporting their finds. Two years later, some dusty notes made by Professor Melentis about Thanassis Delivos, a resident of Milia village, Grevena, who had found some elephant fossils, set them off again on their hunt. Once again their quarry was well concealed, but fate also played its part. Speleologist Vassilis Makridis, who often assists the team, tripped over a fossil on the brow of a hill that had been uncovered by a recent downpour. Some days later, the team managed to dig up the foreleg of a 1.34-meter-tall mastodon. A few meters away there were some more bones, skull fragments, and – to crown their achievement – two large tusks in a crosswise position, and the lower jaw with two small tusks. The fossilized tusks of the lower jaw, which disappeared during the evolution of the elephant species, and their excellent state of preservation, make this find unique in Europe, says Tsoukala. The excavation lasted for months as the team kept returning to the sandy hill, while the removal of the two tusks (each 4.4 meters long and weighing 400 kilos) to a storage museum in the village took as long again. The size of the animal, which led Tsoukala to name it Giant, may have been the cause of its extinction. At an estimated height of 4.5 meters and weight of 12 tons, it must have needed a huge amount of food. The male mastodon found at Milia, Grevena, would make a prize exhibit in any paleontology museum in the world. But in Greece it has ended up on some makeshift benches, not even made of wood as requested by the paleontologists. The scientific safari did not end in 1998. The team returned to the area, and at Priopos near the village of Aghios Georgios they found the jaw of a rhinoceros from the Pliocene era. Our objective, says Tsoukala, is to find a place where fossils of many species can be kept so that the hunt can be completed. Variety of fauna is important to paleontologists, so that we can have as full a picture as possible in order to reconstruct the past, learn about the prehistory of our country, and enrich the two small museums so they become attractions for local and foreign tourists. But we are still very pleased with what we have achieved. Their finds have been published in international journals in France and Italy. Experts abroad know about the Grevena elephant and the mastodon from Milia. Recently an American writer put Cyclops, ancient myths and the elephants of Grevena into a book she wrote. The area has come into the spotlight. The hunt has been successful. 20,000 drachmas ‘lavished’ on conservation Paleontologists attending a congress at Grevena in November suggested that the mastodon from Milia and the elephant from Ambelia become emblems of their towns. This is not the first time a prehistoric animal has been adopted as the emblem of a city. When a mastodon was discovered in a disused mine shaft many years ago near the city of Velenia in Slovenia, the city adopted the animal as its emblem, and a life-size replica of it was put on display. The prefecture of Grevena, which funded the search for the fossils, would like to do the same. The danger The place where the fossilized tusks are being stored in Milia is unsuitable, because insufficient security measures have been taken to protect such finds, which have become big money spinners for local communities elsewhere. The municipal museum of Grevena, which houses the elephant Astrakhan found at Milia, created a display for the finds which was made at a cost of just 20,000 drachmas – the cost of the cloth used to drape over the molds in which the skeleton was transported. The same species has been found in Perdika near Ptolemaida, Megalopoli, and Kalamoto Thessaloniki, while traces of mastodons like Giant have been found in other areas, and fossils of pygmy elephants have been found on Tilos and Crete. These finds have prompted the creation of regional paleontology museums. Similar research is being carried out at Thermopigi, Serres, and the team that found Giant and Astrakhan recently discovered a mastodon on the Cassandra peninsula of Halkidiki that used its lower tusks to pull up roots and bulbs. Record-breaking tusks The age of Astrakhan, the elephant found at Ambelia, was estimated in collaboration with Dr G. Basiakos of the Democritus Natural Science Center’s Archaeometry Laboratory. It dates from 200,000 years ago. Paleontologists believe this species lived in herds in areas with savanna, forests and lakes. Its slanted teeth gave it its name: Palaeoloxodon antiguus. At that time Greece must have been a refuge for many animals because the rest of Europe was intensely cold. The Milia finds are from a prehistoric animal with a trunk, Mamut borsoni, from the Pliocene Epoch, or 3 million years ago. It rates as one of the most impressive paleontological finds ever made. The jaw of this animal, the most complete of its kind yet found, is in temporary storage at the paleontology museum of APT’s Geology Department so that it can be preserved and studied. The animal’s tusks are of record length. In contrast, the tusks of African elephants nowadays are no longer than three meters.