Tuesday, 9 April 2013

"Specimen 2980" small enough and light enough to hold in your arms

Photo: copyright Lars Thomas, used with permission, all rights reserved

Lars Thomas of the University of Copenhagen kindly sent me this photo of himself holding "Specimen 2980", the skull of a female elephant. Even though the photo shows Lars, a Dane, holding a skull, I will refrain from attempting to make amusing comparisons with Hamlet!

The skull is of an elephant shot by big game hunter Edmond Blanc in 1955 in South Cameroon, working on commission for a wealthy industrialist who collected specimens for the University's Natural History Museum. (There's also another - similar - skull of a female elephant from the same heard, 2981.) They were labelled "dwaergelefant" - "dwarf elephant."

Lars told me earlier that the skull is small enough and light enough that you can put your arms around it and lift it up. This compares with the the Museum's skulls of conventionally-sized adult forest elephants, which Lars says you can't even lift off the ground on your own. (These bigger skulls are on loan to the city's zoological gardens, where they're on display in a glass case, so no photos of these for comparison, I'm afraid.)

Based on his analysis of the skull and in particular the teeth, Lars told me that "one is definitely an adult, although very small in stature" and concluded that in one of these, the third set of molars was starting to appear "which would mean it is was at least 20 years old, probably around 25."

The Natural History Museum London's elephant and mammoth expert Prof. Adrian Lister felt the skulls were probably a juvenile or sub-adult, based on (he readily admitted) at a look at just some photos with an object next to them to give an idea of scale. Palaeontologist Dr Darren Naish of Southampton University told me these skulls were probably of juveniles, based on bones in the cheek not being fully fused yet.

My own view is that while it's probably not a pygmy elephant, there is good evidence for some sort of local "eco-type" or "clade" of smaller forest elephant in South Cameroon.

It seems no one had studied these skulls since they were delivered to Copenhagen over half a century ago, until I drew them to Lars' attention last year.

There's also the preserved skin of one of Copenhagen's Cameroon "dwarf" elephants, although it's under lock and key and inaccessible at the moment. Lars regrets to inform me that the specimens are "very low down on the DNA-lab priority list, so I have no idea when anybody will have time to look at those."

I also recently received permission to reproduce in the Pygmy Elephants book photos of a young elephant with "precocious tusk growth" from Uganda in the 1950s - the photographer Dr Clive Spinage, still very much alive, says there were forest elephant/savannah elephant hybrids in the area at the time", so it could have been one of these. You'll have to wait till Pygmy Elephants comes out to see the photo though, as with the photos of Borneo elephants in the wild kindly sent to me by Carl Marshall, recently returned from an expedition to Sabah.

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