Meet the Scientist: Paleontologist Advait Jukar
As a kid, Advait Jukar loved the extinct monsters of deep time, like dinosaurs and mammoths, which is why he feels so lucky now, getting to study these fossil giants everyday as a paleontologist at the National Museum of Natural History. Advait specializes in the study of fossil elephants and their extinct relatives, like mastodons, mammoths, and gomphotheres.
The earliest elephant relatives originated in Africa about 60 million years ago and dispersed to every continent on Earth, except Antarctica and Australia. There are about 165 known elephant species from the fossil record, and scientists estimate that there may be many more that we haven’t found yet in this branch of the evolutionary tree of life. In Earth’s more recent history, between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago, there were 16 species of elephants and their relatives living at the same time around the world, including at least seven in what is now the United States. Today, there are only three species of elephants that remain: the African savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana), the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). Populations of all three species are declining, with Asian elephants at a much higher risk of extinction.
Understanding these extinct elephants can reveal what environments looked like in the past and how communities of plants and animals were connected. To study this group, Advait uses the Smithsonian’s collection of fossil elephant skulls and teeth to try to figure out how many different kinds of elephants there were in Earth’s history, what food they may have eaten, and how they were related to each other. Taking measurements of skulls and teeth help Advait make comparisons to other fossils and find patterns to reveal new information. Watch the brief video above to learn how he uses collections to study fossil elephants.
Watch a webcast with Advait, Forgotten Elephants of Deep Time, recorded on Dec. 12, 2019.