Against a chalk-blue sky, the smooth bare branches of a Motsheketsane tree interweave like a dancer’s arms caught in a multiple exposure. The shade it provides is full of holes, lacy as a cobweb. Embedded in the sand at its base are the hoof prints of zebras, from hooves exactly like those of unshod horses.
Morula and I seek what little shade there is underneath the tree. I take a swig from my water bottle while she searches for leftover Motsheketsane seeds. Using her trunk as a leaf blower, she corrals the ones she finds into a neat little pile whuff, whuff, whuff and transfers it into her mouth.
I pick one up. The seed is oval and has ruffled wings that divide it into 5 horizontal planes. It looks like a small paper lantern of a vaguely Oriental design. I try to pocket one, but its wings crumble as my hand close around it.
My everywhere-mind wanders off by itself, meanderings of no practical use except, of course, to me. Speculatively, I eye Morula, cloak her in long, ginger-colored, shaggy fur, shrink her ears, implant upturned, pitchfork tusks, and imagine her, well, tubbier, in a mastodon suit of hair.
She waves her trunk tip at me, neighborly, as if across a backyard fence: Hello.
With its two fingers, the tip of her trunk could argue for a close relationship with mammoths. But recent DNA research found direct genetic links only between Asian elephants and mammoths. Morula’s family tree looks like this:
Mastodons branched from the proboscidean family tree 26 million years ago. They became the first elephant cousins to leave Africa, the first to migrate through Asia and the first to arrive in North America, around 3.7 million years ago. Mammoths followed, around 2.2 million years later. Once in North America, the elephant cousins spread from Alaska to Central Mexico, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. As you might expect of distant kin, mastodons and mammoths share many characteristics with surviving elephants. They have the same basic body shape, a trunk and tusks. But they also differ in many ways.
The most striking, of course, is that suit of hair.
Morula rubs her left haunch against the gnarly trunk of the Motsheketsane. She has a relatively naked body – obviously a fur coat is useless under the brassy African sun. Her body size, thick skin and subcutaneous fat all help to keep her warm when temperatures occasionally, very occasionally, dip below freezing.
If you shaved a mammoth, or a mastodon, parked it in a zoo, and sold tickets, most people would believe they’re seeing an elephant. But if I put the three cousins on display side-by-side, almost anyone could tell the difference between them.
Of course, bringing to life two extinct species is an impossibility, unless, well . . . . I make things up. Which is an acceptable thing to do as long as I confess that I’m doing it.
So I import to Africa two distinct species that never walked the continent: Mammut americanum (the American mastodon) and Mammuthus columbi (the Columbian mammoth). Both lived exclusively in North America, where fourteen thousand years ago, they could be found, almost literally, in my backyard.
I position Morula between two cousins she will never meet – a mastodon to her right and a mammoth on her left. Oddly enough, because everyone’s related, they don’t really look that much out of place. Of course, this is all in my imagination, so anything is possible.
Columbia, the mammoth, is gigantic – at least four feet taller than Morula – with absolutely spectacular tusks. Curving out, then inward, they nearly cross each other. Even though I’m speculating about them, I don’t overdo their length. At eight feet long, they’re only half the size of the longest mammoth tusks ever recorded.
As soon as she solidifies in my fantasy, Columbia lifts the tip of her trunk and takes a discreet sniff at Morula: Who’s this?
The top “finger” of her trunk is four inches long and the bottom “thumb” two inches – a bit longer than the fingers of Morula’s trunk tip. Columbia’s could pluck out single petals from spring flowers or extract the newest, sweetest stems from the short grasses of the Pleistocene parklands.
She is completely cloaked in rich, russet fur, trunk and all, right down to her toes. Her ears are oval-shaped and small, dainty really, about fifteen inches from top to bottom. Since she lives near Pleistocene ice sheets, she has no need to dissipate heat through her ears.
She quickly loses interest in the smell of an unfamiliar elephant and strolls over to pick out dry blades from a field of African grass, leaving cratered footprints in the dust. Except for their size, I can’t tell them apart from Morula’s.
Columbia wraps her trunk around a wad of grass, from right to left, and rips out a clump. She stuffs the grass between elephant-like molars. As she eats, I hear a phantom fart. She lifts the small, triangular anal flap at the base of her short, stubby tail and drops a pile of dung, which looks exactly like Morula’s latest offerings.
I’m having way too much fun with my mammoth.
Conjuring Mammut americanum, the American mastodon, proves trickier. I can’t quite bring him into focus. Although entire frozen, mummified mammoth carcasses have been unearthed in Siberia – complete with tongues hanging out of their jaws – we know mastodons only by their bones. So when I give Americanum a chestnut-colored shag – short and tangled hair on the top of his low-crowned head, thick and matted fur along his flank – I’m just agreeing with what’s been written elsewhere. A shaggy fur coat is probably a safe bet, since Americanum ranged just south of the Pleistocene ice sheets, mingling with mammoths in the cold wet climate of North America.
Americanum is about the same height as the average African elephant. His back, instead of sloping, like Columbia’s, or saddle-shaped, like Morula’s, is straight – he has no neck. His skull is flatter and longer, without Columbia’s high-domed head or Morula’s rounded crest, and his jaws are elongated. He actually has a chin.
I give my made-up mastodon huge tusks the same length as Columbia’s. While her tusks curve out and then in, like an extravagant Bavarian moustache, his are a classic pitchfork shape. One is a full six inches shorter than the other – Americanum is a lefty. Laterality – right or left-handedness – is present in all proboscidean species.
Both mammoth and mastodon tusks grew to great lengths – a 16-foot mastodon tusk was found in Greece in 2007. The record for African elephants is 11 feet.
Americanum’s tusks, like those of all his cousins, grew as tree rings grow, with varying rates for bad years, good years, summer, spring, winter, fall. Just as African elephants do, he experienced musth after his late teens and began aggressively fighting with other males over receptive females. Fighting caused battle scars to his tooth sockets, tusks and skull. So, although Americanum is stocky, bulky and seemingly without much personality, he‘s not just some docile herbivore. He’s a bull in the prime of his life. Lucky for me, I didn’t conjure him up when his testosterone levels were elevated.
Americanum joins Columbia at a rainbush, but of course he takes no notice of her, nor she of him. How can they? They’re both just figments of my imagination.
He reaches into the bush, plucks a branch of dull green leaves, shoves it into his mouth and chews up and down, like I do, instead of forward and back, like Morula and Columbia. Each ridge on Americanum’s small molars is shaped like a woman’s torso: two breasts with pointed nipple-like chewing surfaces and a valley between them. He has only three to four ridges (sets of breasts) per molar. His common name, mastodon, is a combination of the Greek words for breast (mastos) and tooth (odõn.)
In contrast, the molars of Columbia and Morula are ridged plates: teeth that look like elongated dishes set to dry edgewise in a rack, each plate bonded to the next by enamel. Their molars work like huge horizontal vegetable graters, grinding food back and forth across sharp, upright edges. Morula’s teeth have ten ridges, while Columbia has twenty-seven, due to her exclusive diet of trees.
Doug shows me Morula’s molars. “Open up,” he tells her. She curls her trunk back over her head and he stretches to his tiptoes, pulls her lower gums wide with his hands.
“Very good, my girl.”
If there were dentists for elephants, Morula would be a patient patient.
Doug lets go of Morula’s lower jaw and she swings her trunk down but keeps her mouth open. He grabs a fistful of “elephant candy” and slides his arm into her mouth, all the way to his elbow. As he lets go of the treat he rubs her tongue. She rapidly flaps her ears. “Elephants use their trunks to rub each other’s tongues.” Doug says. “It’s kind of like a handshake.”
I re-conjure Morula’s elephant cousins and find them still eating – Columbia at the rainbush, Americanum pulling up grass. I watch them fondly; they are like old friends in new clothes. But they are rapidly becoming distressed in the African heat. They sway from side to side and flap their small ears like tiny surrender flags. So even though I’ve fallen in love with these ghosts, with elephants who no longer exist, I come to my senses and banish them back to the past, where they are extinct once again.