Stegodon fossil find thrills experts

PETALING JAYA: Universiti Malaya (UM) scientists have identified the fossil of an extinct elephant in a limestone cave in Gopeng, Perak.

With an estimated geological age of between 30,000 and 80,000 years, it is said to be the country’s first discovery of a Stegodon fossil.

Lead researcher Dr Ros Fatihah Muhammad from UM’s Geology Department and Palaeontological Society of Malaysia’s vertebrate palaeontologist and zoo archaeologist Lim Tze Tshen were the scientists behind the find.

“This is the first ever Stegodon fossil found in Malaysia.

“There is no record of Stegodon fossils even in Borneo.

“Usually, what’s left of fossils are teeth because teeth are the most durable part of the whole physical body, ” Ros Fatihah told The Star.

The important find, she added, would shed light on the history of migration of ancient fauna and also environmental changes in the South-East Asian region.

Lim said the Stegodon were not mammoths nor dinosaurs.

“The Stegodon is a group of extinct Proboscidea that is characteristic of the Pleistocene epoch in South-East Asia, ” he said.

“It may have, however, survived much later in certain places.”

A genus Proboscidea in the long-extinct family of Stegodontidae, this ancient elephant is different from the modern Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) which still exists in Malaysia in terms of morphology, ecology and taxonomy.

Perak has the highest diversity of Proboscidea specimens and species in Malaysia, with at least two or three different types of Proboscidea – such as Stegodon sp., Elephas maximus and possibly Palaeoloxodon namadicus – living in Peninsular Malaysia.

The discovery came six years after fossils of a herbivorous dinosaur tooth and the remains of a carnivorous “fish-eating” dinosaur were discovered by a team of UM and Japanese researchers in Pahang in 2014.

Ros Fatihah said the tooth of the Stegodon would be studied to determine the species and age of the elephant.

“This will help us come up with a description of the distribution and relationship of other locations where the Stegodon have been found.

“The geological age is just an estimated figure.

“We have sent the sediment that embedded the fossil to the National Taiwan University to conduct studies to determine its age.

“We use calcite or carbonate found in the sediment for uranium series age determination.

“From there we would be able to figure out the minimum age of the fossil, ” she explained.

Ros Fatihah added that cave enthusiasts from Kinta Valley Watch had notified the team when they stumbled upon the fossil in July.

Her team then took pictures and videos of the find before sending them to experts across the world to confirm if it was a Stegodon.

“We got confirmation almost immediately because the Stegodon is very easy to recognise due to the distinct shape of its tooth, ” she said.

The fossil was excavated on Aug 15.

Lim said the fossil was most likely a Stegodon which was less than two years old.

“There is evidence from this Stegodon’s discovery site and other palaeontological sites which show the existence of extinct animal remains in Peninsular Malaysia such as orang utan, Sumatran rhino, Java rhino, Asian black bear and a rat that is known to be extinct from the planet, ” he added.

Congratulating the researchers, UM vice-chancellor Datuk Abdul Rahim Hashim said the discovery was a milestone in the field of Quaternary palaeontological studies in Malaysia.

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