Island Weirdness #59 — Terrestrial Otters & Owls

The Mediterranean island of Crete had very few predators during the Pleistocene, with most being birds of prey. And with the terrestrial carnivore niches in the ecosystem left vacant, it was a semi-aquatic mammal and an owl that ended up taking advantage of that opportunity.

Neither were large enough to threaten the dwarf elephants and hippos, and don’t even seem to have habitually eaten even the smallest of the miniature giant deer. Instead these Cretan predators focused much more on the smaller land vertebrates on the island, preying on birds, shrews, rodents, amphibians, and reptiles.

A stylized illustration of an extinct otter. It has a blunt snout and chunky legs.
Lutrogale cretensis

Lutrogale cretensis (previously known as Isolalutra cretensis) was a close relative of the modern smooth-coated otter. It was about the same size as its living cousin, around 1m long (3’3″), but had stronger jaws and chunkier limbs.

Its skeleton shows features associated with walking and running more than swimming, and it seems that this was something of a “land otter” — still able to swim, but spending most of its time on land similar to the modern small-clawed otter.

Shellfish were likely still the main part of its diet, indicated by its crushing teeth. But it probably also regularly ate whatever small terrestrial vertebrates it could catch, since more aquatic otters are already known to prey on those types on animals when they can.


A stylized illustration of an extinct giant little owl. It has longer legs than its modern relatives, almost resembling a large burrowing owl.
Athene cretensis

Athene cretensis was yet another weird island owl, but this time not a descendant of a Strix or Tyto species. Instead this owl was descended from the Eurasian little owl — except it had become much much larger.

It stood around 60cm tall (2′), over three times bigger than its living relative. Its legs weren’t quite as long as those of the modern burrowing owl, but they were still proportionally much longer than those of little owls and show adaptations for terrestrial movement. Little owls already sometimes chase down prey on foot, and Athene cretensis was probably even more of a ground-based hunter, convergently similar to the Hawaiian stilt-owls and the Cuban terror owls.

Preserved pellets show that it ate small mammals and birds, mainly large mice.

Its wings were still quite large, and it was probably also a good flier — and may even have spread over to some of the Dodecanese islands to the east of Crete, since a wing bone closely resembling that of Athene cretensis has been found on Armathia.

Both of these predators seem to have disappeared around the end of the Pleistocene, at the same time as many of the other native Cretan species about 21,500 years ago. Much like the situation with Candiacervus, this may have been a result of a combination of a rapidly shifting climate and the presence of humans disrupting the already fragile island ecosystem.

Island Weirdness #58 — Candiacervus ropalophorus

The island of Crete has been isolated since about 5.3 million years ago, when the dried-out Mediterranean Sea refilled — but at that time it started off as several much smaller islands, and only gained its larger modern shape thanks to tectonic uplift in the Pleistocene.

It only had a small number of endemic land mammals during the Pleistocene, whose ancestors all seem to have reached the island by swimming or rafting from southern Greece: dwarf elephants, a small hippo, an otter, a shrew, large mice, and several deer.

Deer are surprisingly good swimmers, and seem to have colonized Crete by the mid-to-late Pleistocene 300,000 years ago. They were by far the most diverse mammals on the island, with eight species in six size classes, each living in different types of habitat and specializing in their own ecological niche in a similar situation to the older Italian Hoplitomeryx. Their anatomy was modified so much that it’s unclear what their original ancestors actually were, or even if they were all descended from a single colonization or multiple arrivals, but they seem to have been close relatives of the huge Megaloceros.

All eight species are usually classified in the genus Candiacervus, and the smallest and weirdest of them all was Candiacervus ropalophorus.

Ironically for a cousin of the giant deer it was tiny, just 40-50cm tall at the shoulder (1’4″-1’8″), with proportionally short stocky legs more like a goat. It seems to have convergently evolved to occupy the same niche as wild goats do elsewhere, clambering over steep rocky mountainous terrain and eating tough prickly vegetation.

The antlers of the males were huge for their body size, around 77cm long (2’6″), and they were simplified into a long straight beam with only a single small spike at the base. The far ends were wider and rounded, described as club-like or spatula-like, and their odd shape suggests they probably weren’t much use for fighting and wrestling like in other deer. Instead they seem to have been more just for show and visual display.

Meanwhile a second dwarf species, Candiacervus reumeri, had more standard-looking antlers and probably still fought each other.

The largest species, Candiacervus major, was as big as a modern wapiti, with a shoulder height of around 1.65m (5’5″) and body proportions much more like a normal long-legged deer. Its antler shape isn’t actually known yet, but since it lived in thickly forested areas of Crete the stags may have had more streamlined antlers to avoid getting snagged on low branches.

The various Candiacervus species went extinct towards the end of the Pleistocene, around the start of the Last Glacial Maximum 21,500 years ago. Originally this was thought to be long before humans ever reached the island, but more recent discoveries have brought that into question.

Humans do actually seem to have encountered living Candiacervus ropalophorus, since petroglyphs in Asphendou Cave appear to depict the dwarf deer and so must be at least 21,500 years old. Additionally, even older stone tools on the southern coast of Crete from at least 130,000 years ago match those made by archaic humans (probably Homo erectus) who may have arrived over sea from northern Africa.

So it’s possible the weird Cretan deer survived alongside humans for some time, but then their habitat started to degrade as the climate shifted rapidly colder and drier. Some remains show that many individuals were suffering from secondary hyperparathyroidism and metabolic bone disease, signs of severe nutritional deficiencies, and their weakening population may have ultimately been unable to deal with both the malnutrition and the additional pressures of human hunting.

Island Weirdness #57 — Cygnus falconeri

The island of Sicily was isolated about 5.3 million years ago when the Mediterranean rapidly refilled. During the next few million years changes in sea level and tectonic uplift allowed repeated colonizations by mainlaind species via the sea strait separating Sicily from Italy, and opened up occasional connections with nearby Malta, resulting in a series of different ecosystems over time.

During the mid-Pleistocene, between about 900,000 and 500,000 years ago, a lack of large land predators on Sicily and Malta allowed a weird mix of endemic species to evolve. Most famous are the tiniest elephants (Palaeoloxodon falconeri), but there were also a couple of giant owls, a small long-legged owl, a giant crane, a big lizard, a giant tortoise, an otter, and giant dormice.

And then there were the swans.

Cygnus falconeri was enormous, at least a third larger than the biggest living swans, at least 1.5m tall (4’11”) — taller than the native elephants, although not nearly as heavy. Its wings were large, with a span of around 3m (9’10”), but at such a hefty size it would have been either a very poor and reluctant flier or functionally flightless.

Its legs were better adapted for walking around on land than for swimming, with shorter toes and possibly reduced webbing. It would have been one of the biggest terrestrial herbivores on Siculo-Malta, probably mainly a grazer but also capable of reaching much higher vegetation than the elephants or tortoises.

It lived alongside another unique swan species, the goose-like dwarf swan Cygnus equitum. Both the giant and dwarf swans probably evolved from the same whooper swan-like ancestor species, but each resulted from separate colonization events — otherwise interbreeding would have probably prevented them from developing such a huge difference in size.

Or an alternative scale comparison to highlight the utter ridiculousness of this island:

A scale comparison between a dwarf elephant and a giant swan. The swan is the taller of the two.
Palaeoloxodon falconeri vs Cygnus falconeri

Between 500,000 and 200,000 years ago multiple sea level fluctuations allowed new species to colonize Siculo-Malta from the mainland, including various large mammalian herbivores and carnivores. With new competition and predators, Cygnus falconeri probably disappeared around the same time as the tiny elephants and most of the other mid-Pleistocene endemic animals.

The dwarf swan, smaller and still a strong flier, may have survived the altered ecosystem for a bit longer, but would have gone extinct during the rapid climate changes at the start of the last glacial period 115,000 years ago.

Island Weirdness #56 — Cynotherium sardous

Despite being decent swimmers, canids are surprisingly rare in island ecosystems, only seeming to end up there when able to move over land connections with larger landmasses (or when brought there by humans). Even the most remote species, the recently-extinct Falkland Island wolf, is thought to have crossed over a short stretch of sea ice during the last glacial period.

So the existence of a unique canid on the Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and Corsica is quite unusual.

The Sardinian dhole (Cynotherium sardous) was a small fox-sized canid, just 50cm tall at the shoulder (1’8″), related to the modern African wild dog and dhole. It was probably descended from the much larger wolf-like Xenocyon, which would have been able to reach Sardinia-Corsica during the early-to-mid Pleistocene about 1.2 million years ago, at a time when lower sea levels connected the island to the European mainland via Tuscany.

Isolated with very little large prey, it instead evolved to specialize in hunting small fast-moving animals, flattening its body low to the ground while stalking in a similar manner to modern foxes or Ethiopian wolves. Powerful shoulder muscles allowed it to launch into sudden high-speed lunges, and it had an especially strong flexible neck that would have been used to grab at its zig-zagging targets and shake them to death.

Cynotherium went extinct sometime in the early Holocene, around 11,000 years ago, after the arrival of humans on Sardinia and Corsica.

The earliest definite human remains on Sardinia are at least 20,000 years old, and while it’s unclear if those were permanent settlers it still seems like Cynotherium was able to deal with the effects of a human presence for several thousand years, probably due to its main prey (the Sardinian pika) also surviving at the time. So its disappearance may have been caused by a combination of problems that slowly whittled away at its population, like the warming climate, gradual habitat destruction, and competition from introduced predators like feral dogs — or possibly even new diseases caught from them.

Island Weirdness #55 — Megalenhydris barbaricina

Along with its miniature mammoths, the Mediterranean island of Sardinia (and neighboring Corsica) had an unusually large amount of endemic mustelids during the Pleistocene and early Holocene. There were at least four different otters — probably all descended from a single species of Lutra — that occupied various ecological niches in both the rivers and the coasts, and also an enigmatic grison-like terrestrial species.

Megalenhydris barbaricina was the largest of the Sardinian-Corsican otters, reaching lengths of over 2m (6’6″), slightly bigger than the modern South American giant river otter. Its crushing teeth indicate it specialized in crunching through hard-shelled invertebrates like molluscs and crustaceans, and its highly flexible backbone and flattened tail suggest it was a strong swimmer that may have been even more aquatic than most other otters.

It was possibly an equivalent of the modern sea otter, spending most of its time in the water, although it’s not clear whether it was a river or marine species.

Dating on the one known partial skeleton of Megalenhydris is uncertain, but it may be late Pleistocene to early Holocene in age, between about about 70,000 and 10,000 years old. Unfortunately this puts it within the same age range as the arrival of humans on Sardinia and Corsica, and its extinction may have been a direct result of being hunted for its meat and pelt.

Island Weirdness #54 — Big Bunnies & Strange Sheep

At the end of the Miocene, about 6 million years ago, the movement of tectonic plates caused the narrow connection between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean to close — and over the next several hundred thousand years the Mediterranean dried up almost completely.

5.3 million years ago the Strait of Gibraltar formed, re-establishing the connection with the Atlantic, and the Mediterranean refilled incredibly rapidly, possibly in as little as two years. As a result, various species that had colonized across the dried-out Mediterranean from the continental mainland were left stranded out on islands that had been re-formed throughout the sea.

And on what is now Menorca a population of rabbits found themselves isolated, with little competition and no large terrestrial predators.

A stylized illustration of an extinct giant rabbit. It doesn't resemble a modern rabbut much at all, with a small head, tiny eyes and ears, a fat body and thick somewhat bear-like limbs.
Nuralagus rex

Nuralagus rex was the evolutionary result, an enormous rabbit 50cm tall at the shoulder (1’8″). It was heavily built with a stiff spine — making it unable to hop — and had weaker senses than its ancestors, with small eyes and stubby ears. It would have been a slow-moving animal ambling around the scrublands of Menorca, digging for its main foods of roots and tubers.

It’s unclear what happened to this big bunny, but it seems to have disappeared around the end of the Pliocene, about 3-2.5 million years ago. Possibly the onset of global cooling at the beginning of the Pleistocene ice ages changed the climate too quickly for it to adapt to, or the dropping sea levels that connected Menorca with nearby Mallorca introduced new competition from the other island that Nuralagus couldn’t cope with.


A stylized illustration of an extinct goat-like sheep. It has a short snout, oddly forward-facing eyes, short pointed horns, and a chunky body.
Myotragus balearicus

And one of the animals that spread into Menorca from Mallorca was Myotragus.

About the same size as the giant rabbits, at 50cm tall (1’8″), Myotragus balearicus was a close relative of modern sheep that had undergone dwarfing on Mallorca since its ancestors’ isolation 5.3 million years ago.

It was possibly one of the most unusual mammals ever, with a combination of features not seen anywhere else. Its snout was relatively short and rabbit-like, with ever-growing front teeth in its lower jaw, and its eyes faced directly forward, giving it stereoscopic vision more like a primate than a herbivore. Its brain and sense organs were highly reduced compared to its ancestors, its legs were shorter and stockier, and its feet had lost much of their flexibility, making it unable to run or jump.

But strangest of all was its metabolism, as indicated by growth lines in its bones. It was essentially cold-blooded, functioning more like a reptile than a mammal, growing at a slow rate that varied or even stopped entirely depending on the conditions of its environment. It would have taken around 12 years for it to reach maturity, an incredibly long time for its size, and so it would have reproduced very very slowly — but this metabolic strategy also allowed it to conserve a lot of energy and survive long periods of scarce food availability.

Myotragus‘ extreme weirdness obviously worked to its advantage, because it was quite common on Mallorca-Menorca and unlike many of the other native species it survived through the much colder drier conditions of the Pleistocene.

It was still around in the Holocene when humans reached the islands in about 3000 BCE, and this slow-moving sluggish goat-like animal with a rather uncanny face must have been a very strange sight to them.

There was a hypothesis that the early settlers actually attempted to domesticate Myotragus, based on remains found in caves with what appeared to be trimmed horns. But in recent years this has been disputed, since some of the “trimmed” horns pre-date human arrival and may be better explained as the result of Myotragus individuals chewing on the bones of others for the mineral content.

Shortly after the arrival of humans Myotragus and the other remaining endemic mammals on the islands (a giant dormouse and a giant shrew) disappeared entirely, suggesting that a combination of hunting, competition from introduced livestock, and predation from dogs was finally too much for these strange sheep to handle.

Island Weirdness #53 — Tiny Elephants On Parade Part 5: Western Mediterranean

During the Pleistocene elephants colonized many of the islands in the Mediterranean Sea, with each island independently developing its own unique dwarfed form.

A stylized illustration of an extinct pygmy mammoth. It has long tightly-curved tusks, small ears, and a coat of hair over its body.
Mammuthus lamarmorai

Mammuthus lamarmorai lived on the island of Sardinia during the middle and late Pleistocene, between about 450,000 and 40,000 years ago. Standing around 1.4m tall at the shoulder (4’7″), it was a dwarf form roughly one-third the size of its ancestor, the huge Eurasian steppe mammoth.

Its remains are known only from the west and south of the island. Strangely it appears to be have been absent from the nearby island of Corsica, despite the two being joined as a single landmass a few times during lower sea level periods in the Pleistocene.

It’s not clear why this mini-mammoth disappeared. The date of the earliest human settlement of Sardinia is controversial (ranging from 250,000 to 20,000 years ago), so Mammuthus lamarmorai might never have actually encountered them. Instead it may have struggled to cope with climate changes during the last glacial period towards the end of the Pleistocene, which rapidly turned Sardinia colder and drier.


A stylized illustration of an extinct dwarf elephant. It has long thin tusks and tiny ears, and its body shape resembles a chubby baby elephant.
Palaeoloxodon falconeri

Over on Sicily and Malta (which were also occasionally a single island when sea levels were lower), there were several different species of miniature elephant during the mid-to-late Pleistocene, each with a different body size and occupying its own ecological niche. They were all descendants of the massive straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) but each resulted from independent colonization waves swimming over to the island(s).

Palaeoloxodon falconeri lived during the mid-Pleistocene, about 550,000 years ago, and was both the smallest of the Mediterranean dwarfs and possibly the smallest elephant to ever exist. Just 0.8-1m tall (2’7″-3’3″), it had adult body proportions resembling the juveniles of its ancestors, limbs adapted for running and clambering over rough terrain, and a proportionally enormous brain relative to its body size.

Around 200,000 years ago a sea level drop allowed new colonization from the Italian mainland. If Palaeoloxodon falconeri was still around at that time it likely didn’t survive long with new competition from large herbivores like bison and deer, and being preyed on by newly-arriving large carnivores like wolves, lions, and hyenas.

Another small elephant soon evolved to take its place, although due to the presence of predators it was never able to get nearly so tiny.

A stylized illustration of an extinct dwarf elephant. It has short thick twisting mammoth-like tusks and small ears.
Palaeoloxodon mnaidriensis

Palaeoloxodon mnaidriensis was in fact one of the largest dwarf elephants in the Mediterranean, standing about 1.8-2m tall (5’11”-6’6″), but despite its larger size its limbs still show signs of adaptation for more fast and agile movement. Its tusks also show a lot of variation in shape, with some much more curved and twisted than others.

This elephant had disappeared by about 13,000 years ago, probably due to the climate significantly warming towards the end of the last ice age. Much like Sardinia, the earliest arrival of humans on Sicily and Malta is controversial, and it’s unclear whether they ever encountered Palaeoloxodon mnaidriensis — the earliest definite date for Sicily is about 16,000 years ago, so a human-induced extinction can’t be ruled out entirely.

The subfossil remains of the Siculo-Maltese elephants may have also ended up inspiring legends of the cyclops, as their skulls would have resembled large human ones with the nasal cavity forming a single big “eye socket”.

Island Weirdness #52 — Labidura herculeana

Located in the South Atlantic Ocean, Saint Helena is a small volcanic island that formed several million years ago on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It’s one of the most remote islands in the world, and with no native land mammals and no large predators it developed an ecosystem with several unique flightless birds, and hundreds of endemic invertebrates and plants.

The Saint Helena giant earwig (Labidura herculeana) was, as its name suggests, an enormous species of earwig. Growing as large as 8.4cm long (3.3″) it was the biggest of its kind in the world, and was completely flightless with no hind wings.

It lived in deep burrows in the arid plain and gumwood forest regions of the island, and only came out at night during the summer rains. Since it was probably descended from the shore earwig (Labidura riparia) it was likely a similar sort of opportunistic carnivore, eating smaller invertebrates and carrion.

Humans didn’t reach Saint Helena until the early 1500s, and it wasn’t until 1798 that the earwig was noticed by naturalists and given its scientific name. Then it was more or less forgotten about, and scientific interest in it didn’t start to resume until the 1960s.

But by then it was just very slightly too late.

Extensive habitat destruction and predation by invasive cats, rodents, and centipedes had taken a huge toll on the earwig, and it had become incredibly rare. The last sighting of a live individual was in 1967, and attempts to locate more for potential captive breeding programs in the 1980s and 1990s failed to find any at all.

The last traces of the species were some isolated subfossil pincers found in the mid 1990s, and the giant earwig was officially declared extinct in 2014.

Island Weirdness #51 — Tainotherium valei

Like much of the Caribbean, Puerto Rico originated as part of a Mesozoic volcanic island arc. While in theory this could have resulted in the region retaining some relict populations of weird Cretaceous species, there’s a major reason this didn’t actually happen: the asteroid impact event 66 million years ago. The proximity to Chicxulub would have been devastating to the proto-Caribbean at the time, with tsunamis as high as 500m (1640′) battering the islands and destroying practically everything that lived there at the time.

Afterwards subsidence in the early Cenozoic submerged many of the islands and drowned whatever was left, so it wasn’t until later tectonic uplifting that land re-emerged and was able to be recolonized by species via rafting and island hopping (or possibly via a short-lived land bridge).

Caviomorph rodents arrived from South America around the start of the Oligocene, about 33 million years ago, and became very successful due to being some of the only land mammals present on many of the islands. The only modern survivors of this lineage are a handful of hutias, but in the past they were much more diverse — and some of them were giants

Tainotherium valei lived in Puerto Rico during the Late Pleistocene and early Holocene, and while it wasn’t quite the largest of the giant hutias it was still enormous. It’s only known from a single partial leg bone, so its full size is difficult to estimate, but it was probably somewhere around 80cm tall at the shoulder (2’7″) and weighed about 100kg (220lbs) – similar in size to a modern black bear.

And that leg bone is especially unusual, showing anatomical adaptions associated with tree-climbing. This is strange for such a huge heavy mammal, but it may have been an ecological equivalent of something like the giant Malagasy lemurs, a slow-moving animal that climbed up trees to feed and regularly traveled over the ground from one feeding site to another.

During the Pleistocene lower sea levels meant most of the Puerto Rican archipelago was part of a much larger landmass that also included most of the nearby Virgin Islands, and the predominate climate at the time was a dry savanna. As sea levels rose at the start of the Holocene the climate shifted wetter and Puerto Rico became densely forested. This would have been advantageous for a tree-climbing animal like Tainotherium, so it was likely still around when the first humans arrived in around 3000-2000 BCE.

Unfortunately these early settlers appear to have burned large amounts of the forests for the first few centuries of their presence, and such widespread habitat destruction would have driven this giant rodent extinct very quickly.

Island Weirdness #50 — Caracara tellustris

Jamaica is unusual among the Caribbean islands for having had relatively few predatory birds.

One of the few known fossil species is Caracara tellustris, a close relative of the modern crested caracaras that probably evolved in the mid-Pleistocene between about 1.2 and 0.4 million years ago.

About 60-65cm long (2′-2’2″), it was similar in body size to larger individuals of its living relatives but was heftier built and had slightly longer legs, and its wings were reduced enough that it was either a very weak flier or entirely flightless.

It lived only in the dry scrubland around the southern coast of the island, and probably mainly preyed on reptiles, small rodents, and crabs using its strong legs — a lifestyle very similar to the modern secretarybird. Like other caracaras it would have also opportunistically scavenged on carrion, which there would have been little competition for.

The known remains of Caracara tellustris date to as recently as 100 CE, showing that it existed well into the Holocene and survived through the initial arrival of humans on its island home (about 4000 BCE). This is likely due to its inhospitable hot, arid, and thorny habitat, where it would have been left relatively undisturbed, and it may even have persisted until the time of European colonization in the 1500s.

Unfortunately the scrubland was also very limited in size and the Jamaican caracara would have always been quite a rare species. If it was still around by then it would have faced a combination of introduced predatory mammals and habitat destruction by agriculture, which would have driven it into extinction so quickly its existence was never even noticed by naturalists at the time.