The order Proboscidea includes extant elephants and their extinct relatives and is closely related to the aquatic sirenians (manatees and dugongs) and terrestrial hyracoids (hyraxes). Some analyses of embryological, morphological, and paleontological data suggest that proboscideans and sirenians shared an aquatic or semiaquatic common ancestor, but independent tests of this hypothesis have proven elusive. Here we test the hypothesis of an aquatic ancestry for advanced proboscideans by measuring delta(18)O in tooth enamel of two late Eocene proboscidean genera, Barytherium and Moeritherium, which are sister taxa of Oligocene-to-Recent proboscideans. The combination of low delta(18)O values and low delta(18)O standard deviations in Barytherium and Moeritherium matches the isotopic pattern seen in aquatic and semiaquatic mammals, and differs from that of terrestrial mammals. delta(13)C values of these early proboscideans suggest that both genera are likely to have consumed freshwater plants, although a component of C(3) terrestrial vegetation cannot be ruled out. The simplest explanation for the combined evidence from isotopes, dental functional morphology, and depositional environments is that Barytherium and Moeritherium were at least semiaquatic and lived in freshwater swamp or riverine environments, where they grazed on freshwater vegetation. These results lend new support to the hypothesis that Oligocene-to-Recent proboscideans are derived from amphibious ancestors
Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A 105, 5786-5791.