Tuesday 26 September 2017

3ft tall 'mammoth' lived on Crete

Scientists at the Natural History Museum have identified a mini-mammoth that lived on the island of Crete
Scientists at the Natural History Museum have identified a mini-mammoth that lived on the island of Crete

A "mini-mammoth" which stood just over three feet tall once roamed the island of Crete, scientists have learned.

Mammuthus creticus was roughly the size of a modern baby elephant and is the smallest mammoth known to have existed. Its larger ancestors are thought to have shrunk in size after becoming stranded on the Greek island.

Dwarfism is an evolutionary trait often seen on islands where there may be insufficient space and resources to support full-sized species.

M. creticus was identified by experts who re-examined a collection of fossil teeth at London's Natural History Museum.

The teeth were unearthed by pioneering fossil hunter Dorothea Bate in 1904. For more than a century they were assumed to belong to a dwarf-form of the straight-tusked elephant, Palaeoloxodon antiquus.

But the new research, reported in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, showed that the tooth enamel bore distinct mammoth hallmarks. Further proof came when the scientists retraced Ms Bate's footsteps in Crete and found a mini-sized mammoth upper arm bone.

M. creticus may be descended from one of two European mammoth species, M. meridionalis and M. rumanus, which became extinct around 800,000 years ago. M. rumanus evolved as long ago as 3.5 million years, which means the mini-mammoth could have ancient ancestry.

Lead researcher Dr Victoria Herridge, from the Natural History Museum, said: "Dwarfism is a well-known evolutionary response of large mammals to island environments. Our findings show that on Crete, island dwarfism occurred to an extreme degree, producing the smallest mammoth known so far.

"As such, we can show that this extreme insular evolution has taken place independently in two different non-dwarf elephant lineages of the straight-tusked elephants, Palaeoloxodon, and mammoths, Mammuthus. This opens up the possibility that dwarf mammoths evolved on Crete much earlier than we previously thought, perhaps as early as 3.5 million years ago.

"Using the museum's collections alongside new measurements of an upper arm bone we found when we went back to Crete, we now know that Bate's specimens are mammoths with similarities to both M. meridionalis and M. rumanus. The arm bone in particular gives us the best evidence so far for how big or rather, how small this dwarf mammoth really was."

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