Dog-Sized Elephants Basked in the Italian Sun

Really. Pygmy Elephants about the height of a Great Dane lived on Mediterranean Islands not too long ago.

Unlike dinosaurs who died out hundreds of millions of years ago, pygmy elephants lived well into recorded history. They're thought to be pictured below on an Egyptian tomb dating from about 1,500 B.C. The pygmy elephant is the little figure on the left. It's an adult with full tusks and yet it's waist high and being led by a leash!


These puny pachyderms probably descended from normal-size elephants who made their way from Africa to Sicily, Crete, Malta and other islands during the Ice Age when water levels were lower than now. Then, as the Ice Age faded, water levels rose and the creatures found themselves marooned.

Why did they shrink? Probably through a process termed insular dwarfism. As the normal sized elephants used up the island's limited resources natural selection favored the smaller individuals who needed less food to survive. These smaller animals tended to live and reproduce at a better rate than their larger brothers. This evolution toward "small" continued until, as their remaining skeletons show, adults grew to only about four feet tall.

These tiny tuskers might well have lived until modern times if the last of them hadn't died out, possibly hunted to extinction, during the Bronze Age.

Too bad they're gone. Think how cool it would be to have one as a pet--as long as they could be housebroken.

PB

Comments

awww! I want a pygmy elephant! You could keep a whole herd in your backyard

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