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Elephants are placed within the suborder Elephantoidea, in the order Proboscidea. The first identifiable ancestors of today's elephants were small beasts that lived An African elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Photograph by Malcolm Boulton. The National Audubon Society Collection/Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced by permission. 50–70 million years ago and stood about 2 ft (0.75 m) tall. The suborder Elephantoidea originated in North Africa long before that region became extensively desertified, and from there elephants spread to every continent except Australia and Antarctica. The group once included three families, several genera, and hundreds of species. Today, however, the family Elephantidae includes only two living species: the Asian and the African elephant. Mammoths and mastodons also belonged to the suborder Elephantoidea, but these species become extinct about 10,000 years ago.

About 400,000 years ago Asian elephants inhabited a much wider range than they do today, including Africa. This species now survives only in southern Asia, from India to Sumatra and Borneo. The single species of Asian elephant has three subspecies: Elephas maximus maximus of Sri Lanka, E. m. indicus of India, Indochina, and Borneo, and E. m. sumatranus of Sumatra. African elephants only ever existed in Africa, appearing in the fossil record about four million years ago. As recently as only a hundred years ago, some 10 million African elephants inhabited that continent. By 1999, however, their numbers were reduced by overhunting to only about 300,000.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Electrophoresis (cataphoresis) to EphemeralElephant - Evolution, Body, Limbs, Head, Mouth And Trunk, Teeth, Ears, Group Structure - Eyes, Social behavior, Death