Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Pygmy elephants

I went backstage at the Natural History Museum last Thursday (10th May) to check out the Bate Collection, a dawn of the twentieth century collection of the remains of the pygmy elephants that used to inhabit the islands of the Meditarranean. We reckon they were about three foot at the shoulder, and the babies may have been the size of large cats.

I was researching for a future Fortean Times feature on pygmy elephants, including reports of living ones in Kerala State, India, and Congo Brazaville. Victoria Herridge, who's studying the evolutionary biology of dwarf elephants and who was my guide to the Bate Collection, was surprisingly unbothered at the suggestion of living very small elephants out in the Congo, saying that we know so little about the forest elephants that live there, they're retiring, they live in the deep forest, there are wars going on there, nobody can get out there, so she felt it was quite possible. She added that there is a big known size range in known living species of elephant anyway.

The article will be out sometime this year hopefully, and in the event of any speakers dropping out of the Centre for Fortean Zoology's Weird Weekend conference this August, I am on the substitute bench to deliver a talk on this myself.

The pictures show an adult tooth of elephas antiqus falconeri from Cyprus (by comparision, modern African elephant cheek teeth are well over a foot long, the "Micromammals" label on the drawer in which specimens are kept, and an open drawer of Cypriot adult pygmy elephant teeth. We saw a fossil "milk tusk" -baby elephants have an early set of tusks that they shed. The pygmy milk tusk was about the size of one of those short pencils you get in IKEA.

My pictures are rubbish compared to those of my colleague Isabelle Merimond, a pro, whose much better pics will illustrate the feature.

No comments: