Reconstruction of an almost complete dwarf elephant

The skeleton of a dwarf elephant found on the island of Sicily, where the creatures underwent a remarkably rapid reduction in size. Credit: Museo Geologico Gemmellaro/SiMuA/Univ. Palermo

Palaeontology

Prehistoric dwarf elephants lost weight in no time

Natural selection tends to shrink large animals living in places with limited food.

Ancient elephants that colonized the island of Sicily no earlier than 200,000 years ago shrank drastically in size generation by generation, probably owing to food scarcity.

The Mediterranean island, now part of Italy, has hosted multiple lineages of miniature elephants over the millennia. Sina Baleka at the University of Potsdam in Germany and her colleagues wanted to know just how fast these lineages shrank.

DNA analysis of a fossil from Puntali Cave suggests that it came from a member of the extinct genus Palaeoloxodon. The researchers estimate that this individual would have been just 2 metres tall at the shoulder and would have weighed 1.7 tonnes. Radiocarbon dating and analysis of protein degradation in the tooth enamel suggest that the elephant died between 175,500 and 50,000 years ago. This petite proboscidean was a direct descendant of the straight-tusked elephant, Palaeoloxodon antiquus — estimated to have been 3.7 metres tall with a mass of 10 tonnes — and belonged to a species that seems to have diverged from P. antiquus around 400,000 years ago.

Over time, this lineage shrunk to less than 20% of its original mass, at a rate that could have been as high as 200 kilograms per generation, the scientists conclude.