Dwarf Elephant

Dwarf elephant
The Dwarf Elephant. Wikimedia Commons

Name:

Dwarf Elephant; genus names include Mammuthus, Elephas and Stegodon

Habitat:

Small islands of the Mediterranean Sea

Historical Epoch:

Pleistocene-Modern (2 million-10,000 years ago)

Size and Weight:

About six feet long and 500 pounds

Diet:

Plants

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Small size; long tusks

About the Dwarf Elephant

Few prehistoric mammals have been as baffling to paleontologists as the Dwarf Elephant, which didn't comprise just one genus of prehistoric elephant, but several: the various Dwarf Elephants that lived on various Mediterranean islands during the Pleistocene epoch were made up of stunted populations of Mammuthus (the genus that includes the Woolly Mammoth), Elephas (the genus that includes modern elephants), and Stegodon (an obscure genus that seems to have been an offshoot of Mammut, aka the Mastodon).

Further complicating matters, it's possible that these elephants were capable of interbreeding--meaning the Dwarf Elephants of Cyprus may have been 50 percent Mammuthus and 50 percent Stegodon, while those of Malta were a unique blend of all three genera.

While the evolutionary relationships of Dwarf Elephants are a matter of dispute, the phenomenon of "insular dwarfism" is well understood. As soon as the first full-sized prehistoric elephants arrived on, let's say, the small island of Sardinia, their ancestors began evolving toward smaller sizes in response to limited natural resources (a colony of full-sized elephants eats thousands of pounds of food every day, much less so if the individuals are only one-tenth the size). The same phenomenon occurred with the dinosaurs of the Mesozoic Era; witness the shrimpy Magyarosaurus, which was only a fraction of the size of it continental titanosaur relatives.

Adding to the mystery of the Dwarf Elephant, it hasn't yet been proved that the extinction of these 500-pound-beasts had anything to do with the early human settlement of the Mediterranean. However, there is a tantalizing theory that the skeletons of dwarf elephants were interpreted as Cyclopses (one-eyed monsters) by the early Greeks, who incorporated these long-gone beasts into their mythology thousands of years ago!

(By the way, the Dwarf Elephant shouldn't be confused with the Pygmy Elephant, a smaller relative of African elephants that exists today in very limited numbers.)