Sunday, 30 September 2012

Elephas falconeri startled by territorial swan

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

Mainland giant and island pygmy teeth, Elephant nain du Gabon

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.

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

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Final illustrations

Eight days to go 'till delivery of Pygmy Elephants at the publishers, and although I have not been as busy as I would have wanted, I've completed most of the illustrations that remain to be done.

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

Pygmy Elephants flyer

There's now a flyer for the forthcoming Pygmy Elephants book. I've already distributed it in a slightly different version to attendees at this year's Colloque de Cryptozoologie in Belgium.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

l'Élephant nain - Mammalia 1951

I am now 17 days away from the deadline for delivery of Pygmy Elephants to the publisher, and I have been busy!

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 article from Fortean Times, CFZ "Weird Weekend" talks on pygmy elephants

My report on my trip to Kerala, India to investigate reports of alleged "kallana" pygmy elephants is here... (April 2011)

My talk on the "kallana" expedition from CFZ's Weird Weekend is here... (video, September 2011)

My earlier talk on pygmy elephants, from another CFZ Weird Weekend is here... (October 2008)

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)

Evolution of Island Mammals review from Fortean Times, includes fossil pygmy elephants, co-author Georgios Lyras helped with the Pygmy Elephants book, read the review here... (January 2011)

Much more in the Pygmy Elephants book, due out in time for Christmas.

Profusely illustrated

With just over a month to go until my deadline to hand in Pygmy Elephants to the publishers, I've been going through the illustrations, and I'm shocked to discover there's nearly 100 of them. Here's a sneak preview of some of them, in glorious black-and-white, due to the no-nonsense nature of the print-on-demand printing process. All these images copyright Matt Salusbury, all rights reserved.
Close-up of a juvenile captive elephant's head, Periyar River, Kerala, India
Dr Victoria Herridge holding a Mediterranean fossil pygmy elephant tooth, "backstage" at the Natural History Museum, London.
Deinotherium - an early relative of the elephants - compared to the contemporary early hominid Austraopithecus, with whom its shared the Rift Valley in East Africa. 1/25th scale models by Bullyland, from author's collection
Elephas mniadriensis, another Mediterranean pygmy elephant, a taller "intermediate" form. It was a later arrival to the Mediterranean islands.
The giant sengi, a relative of the elephant shrews, but half as big again as the next biggest member of the elephant shrew family. Recently discovered in a Tanzanian "island forest", it's an example of island forest adaptations, in which larger mammals often become smaller and small mammals often become bigger. The giant sengi is also a (very) distant relative of the elephants. There's more in the book, Pygmy Elephants, out in time for Christmas.

Another "dwaergelefant", Specimen 2981

Lars Thomas of the University of Copenhagen kindly sent me a bunch of photos he'd taken for me of the other "dwaergelefant" (Danish for "dwarf elephant") from the University's museum, shot in South Cameroon in 1955. This is the skull of Specimen 2981, a female. The Stanley knife in front of it is 15cm long. The other one (see below) is Specimen 2980, which had milk in its teats. Lars felt that, based on the position and wear on the teeth - elephants' teeth come out at different points in their jaw during their lifetime, making dentition a better guide to their age than size - they were very small adults. I forwarded some photos of Specimen 2980 to the expert of fossil elephants, especially mammoths, Prof. Adrian Lister of the Natural History Museum, London, who's also very knowledgeable indeed on living elephants. Based on some calculations my mathematician colleague did on the size of the skull, using the 15cm-long Stanley knife as a guide, Prof. Lister felt that Specimen 2980 was within the range of the size a forest elephant could be. He also felt - based on the photographs and what he could see in them - Specimen 2980 could be as young as 20 years old, which wouldn't make it fully grown anyway. Prof. Lister emphasised that this was just an initial view based on looking at a couple of photographs only. There's more in the book Pygmy Elephants, due out in December from CFZ Press.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Copenhagen University's dwaergelefanten

Lars Thomas of the University of Copenhagen finally got access to the mammalogy section of the University of Copenhagen museum, where specimens had been put in deep freezes to combat a beetle infestation. After a long delay, he was able to send me some photos of one of the female dwaergelefanten - Danish for "dwarf elephants" - shot in 1955 in South Cameroon. Lars told me, "I've had a chance now to look closer on them, and one is definitely an adult, although very small in stature... Each elephant teeth lasts around 10 years. And in one of the animals, the third one was starting to appear, which would mean it is was at least 20 years old, probably around 25." The photo shows the lower(?) jaw of Specimen no. 2980, one of the two females shot and sent to the museum. The Stanley knife for scale is 15cm long.
More details in the Pygmy Elephants book, due out from CFZ Publications in time for Christmas. Photo copyright Lars Thomas, used with permission.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Under construction

This blog is about Pygmy Elephants, the book by Matt Salusbury, to be published by CFZ Press later this year. Updates - including details of publication and the book launch - will start going up here shortly.
Illustrations copyright Matt Salusbury, from the forthcoming book