Sunday, 30 September 2012
An imagined scene from the forthcoming Pygmy Elephants book - the smallest known pygmy elephant, Elephas falconeri, had no known predators but may well have got too close to a bad-tempered swan occasionally, as in this encounter at the edge of a shallow lake somewhere in Sicily half a million years ago.
Image copyright Matt Salusbury
Tuesday, 11 September 2012
Here are some recent illustrations for the Pygmy Elephants book, there are now only a handful that still need doing.
The one above shows a molar (tooth) from the presumed mainland ancestor of the Mediterranean pygmy elephants, Elephas antiquus. That's the big black one. Shown to scale is a tooth of its smallest presumed descendent - Elephas falconeri. They're based on teeth I've seen and handled "backstage" at the Natural History Museum, London.
Here's my rough sketch inspired by descriptions of and visual material (drawings and photographs) on l'elephant nain du Gabon, an alleged "loud, aggressive... crop-destroying" pygmy elephant shot in 1948 in the then French colony of Gabon, West Africa. The European-looking man might be Monsieur Moirand, principal controller of waterways and forests for that colony. The remains of the elephant ended up in the Natural History Museum, Paris, where a 2003 DNA analysis concluded it was an ordinary forest elephant, Loxodonta cyclotis.
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
Wednesday, 8 August 2012
Here is my illustration of Elephas antiquus, aka Paleoloxodon antiquus, the presumed ancestor of most of the Mediterranean pygmy elephants. It was bigger than a modern Asian elephant (some of the very biggest specimens of Asian elephants, from Sri Lanka and the Royal Bardia National Park, would have come close). E. antiquus had - we think - more pronounced depressions in the dome of its head than today's Asian elephant, and front legs longer than the back legs, giving it a more sloping back. The tusk sockets seem to have been more massive than in today's elephants, and its tusks were more straight or gently curving. This last characteristic gives it its alternative name, the "straight-tusked elephant".
E. antiquus was a European elephant, a recent well-preserved example turned up during building work at the car park for the Ebbsfleet Eurostar station in Kent. It was a contemporary of early human ancestors like Homo heidelbergensis, although it was not still around when the first Homo sapiens showed up in England. Several European E. antiquus finds show signs of butchery by humans, one even had what seems to be the shaft of a spear among its remains.
Less young readers may remember seeing illustrations in R.J. Unstead's primary school history books for children, older Ladybird books or the How and Why Wonder Book of early humans in what's now London, stalking straight-tusked elephants.
The dwarf elephants of the Mediterranean, including the tiniest, the three-foot Elephas falconeri (see below) are believed to be the descendents of E. antiquus. Some had (we think) the same domed heads and comparatively massive tusk sockets.
Tuesday, 31 July 2012
Sunday, 29 July 2012
On what is hopefully my last pygmy elephant-related visit to the British Library's Humanities Reading Room 1, I looked up Lucien Blancou's Notes Sur les mammiferes de l'Equateur Africain Français - l'Élephant nain from Mammalia 1951 ("nain" being "dwarf".) In this, Blancou is convinced that several particularly "loud, aggressive" crop-raiding elephants shot in Gabon in 1948 were pygmies.
The trouble is, he seems to change his mind about pygmy elephants in a later (1962) article in the same journal, and later comes to the conclusion there is no such thing. And the 2003 DNA analysis of one of the skulls in question suggested they were bog-standard forest elephants ("Status of the so-called pygmy elephant,"Régis De Bruyne, Arnaud Van Holt, Véronique Barriel, Pascal Tassy, Compte Rendu Biologies, Natural History Museum Paris, Elsevier, 2003)
Monday, 16 July 2012
Pygmy Pachyderms - my article first published in Fortean Times is here... (October 2009)
Backstage at the Natural History Museum, London - the Bate Collection of Mediterranean pygmy elephant fossils, report here... (May 2007)
Much more in the Pygmy Elephants book, due out in time for Christmas.