Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Elephant Evolution

A Deep Time Lineages Activity

Activity Description


Students will use shared characteristics to create an elephant evolutionary tree using teeth from 4 elephant relatives.

  • Designed for group of up to 5 students each
  • Grades 3-8 or Ages 8-14
  • Activity should take 15-20 minutes to complete


Students are presented with four elephant relatives — an Asian elephant, a woolly mammoth, a Stegomastodon, and an American mastodon. They are asked to hypothesize which are most closely related. Roles are then assigned — field researchers, who report on evidence they "find in the field" (three fossil teeth and a modern Asian elephant tooth), and a lead researcher, who is responsible for organizing data on the evolutionary tree. The team works together comparing key features and working out the evolutionary relationships. Then they revisit their hypothesis, see how their thinking has changed, and they are given a question — when on the tree did adaptations to eating grass arise? — that they use their tree to answer. A fuller elephant tree is then revealed, allowing students to explore the great diversity of the elephant lineage in more detail; with their new tree training, they are able to ask more questions and make new discoveries together.

In the course of doing this activity, students will:

  • Make observations of, describe and compare the teeth of extinct and extant elephant relatives.
  • Use an evolutionary tree to show hypotheses about evolutionary relationships
  • Use specific characteristics of the teeth to work out how closely the animals are related
  • Use the tree to answer questions about when different traits were acquired along the elephant lineage
  • Discuss, explain, and debate with family members to make hypotheses, and make decisions while building the tree
  • Feel like they are doing science

Science Standards (NGSS)

Life Science

3rd Grade

  • 3-LS4-1: Analyze and interpret data from fossils to provide evidence of the organisms and the environments in which they lived long ago.
  • 3-LS4-3: Construct an argument with evidence that in a particular habitat some organisms can survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all.

4th Grade

  • 4-LS1-1 Construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction.

Grades 6-8

  • MS-LS4-1 Analyze and interpret data for patterns in the fossil record that document the existence, diversity, extinction, and change of life forms throughout the history of life on Earth under the assumption that natural laws operate today as in the past.

Download Materials to Use in Your Classroom

You can print and play this activity using a basic color printer and a laminator, or you can choose to produce something a bit more durable and high fidelity with off-the shelf purchases, 3D printer and custom print shop. Find instructions for each option below.

It is advised that no more than five students engage in the activity at a time. Multiple copies may be necessary to have an entire classroom divide into groups that do the activity at the same time. 

Download the very large, high-resolution files from this Dropbox folder:

Here is a list of the files:

  • Elephant Tree Board PDF: Send to printer
  • Elephant Diversity Board PDF: Send to printer
  • Trait Tokens PDFs: Send to printer, or print, cut and tape to cardboard or foam core
  • Elephant Tooth Diagram: Print, cut out and laminate
  • Elephant Photos PDF: Print, cut out and laminate


Or you can use toy animals to enhance the activity. 

(Available for purchase online.)


3D Scans of 4 Teeth of Elephant Relatives:

Resource Type
Hands-On Activities
Grade Level
3-5, 6-8
Learning Standards
Next Generation Science Standards
Life Science, Paleontology