Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Slight delay - meanwhile Oslo dwarf hippo, Oxford juvenile elephant

Pygmy Elephants is now expected to be finished and handed in to the publisher in early October. The original plan was to hand it in during Weird Weekend in mid-August, which came and went with no book finished.

Some work is still needed on the prehistoric pygmy elephants chapter, "incredible shrinking mammoths" (palaeontological evidence suggests the mammoths were getting successively smaller over their last generations in Siberia and Wrangel Island, and in other, earlier populations too), and on the "island dwarves, island giants, island forests" chapter.

On the subject of island dwarves, I saw this skeleton of Hippopotamus madagascariensis, the dwarf hippo of Madagascar, at the Natural History Museum, Oslo, It may have been finished off by the first arriving humans on the island. The skull is about a third the size of an adult conventionally-sized hippo's skull.

There are still a few things that need looking up and/or checking again before Pygmy Elephants can go to press - a source regarding a German team of anthropologists from the University of Gottingen, said to have filmed a group of pygmy elephants in the Central African Republic in the 1980s whilst studying the Binga people of the forest, Lucien Blancou and his apparent change of mind on whether there are pygmy elephants, and so on.

I've been busy. Zoologist Lars Thomas, who uncovered for me two skulls of alleged female pygmy elephants that had lain forgotten in the University of Copenhagen Museum, was a speaker at Weird Weekend. He told me at WW that he could put his arms round these skulls, while the museum had skulls of adult Loxodonta cyclotis (forest elephants) that he couldn't even lift off the ground. He says there's also the hardened, dried skin of one of the alleged South Cameroon pygmy elephants, and doesn't rule out a DNA sample eventually. The University of Copenhagen is gaining something of a reputation for DNA analysis, so they've got a bit of backlog right now!

Palaeontologist Darren Naish and zoologist Max Blake, also at Weird Weekend took a look at Lars' photos of the South Cameroon skulls and agreed - based on the limited information available - that they seemed to be of an adult or sub-adult. I may also have found someone to write a foreward to the book.

I saw the above reconstruction in a display at the Natural History Museum, Oslo of Elephas falconeri, aka Paleoloxodon falconeri, the smallest known pygmy elephant, from Sicily, around 100,000 years ago. The reconstruction here has a big domed head, although at least one recent description of E. falconeri points out that its (proportionally big) head isn't as domed as its mainland ancestor.

I also recently visited the Museum of Natural History, Oxford, where there's a skeleton of a three-year-old infant Asian elephant, interesting to compare it to alleged pygmies. As can be seen from the skull, the sutures aren't yet fused. A lot of the tusk development on this skeleton - if not all of it - won't have protruded from under the gums. The human standing next to it is almost exactly my height - just over 6ft 3.

All photos copyright Matt Salusbury

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