Island Weirdness #21 – The Malagasy Mini-Hippos

Much like elephants, hippos have frequently made their way onto islands and developed dwarfed forms. These mini-hippos are mostly known from the Mediterranean, but further south they also occurred on Madagascar.

Hippopotamus madagascariensis (also sometimes called Hexaprotodon madagascariensis or Choeropsis madagascariensis; its exact classification is uncertain) was similar in size and appearance to the modern West African pygmy hippo – which it might have been closely related to, or may have just ended up resembling through parallel evolution.

Standing under 1m tall at the shoulder (3′3″) and measuring about 1.8m long (5′11″) it lived in the forested highlands and was much more terrestrial than its larger cousins. Its eyes were further down on the sides of its head, and it was better adapted for walking and running around on land, with proportionally longer legs and a more digitigrade posture.

It also had an unusually small brain for its size – about 30% smaller than expected – which may have been an energy-saving adaptation.

Two other species of dwarf hippo have been identified on Madagascar – the similarly-sized but more aquatic Hippopotamus lemerlei in the west of the island, and the larger and poorly-known Hippopotamus laloumena in the east. It’s not clear when exactly the ancestors of these various hippos first arrived on the island, and they may even represent three independent colonization events.

The last known subfossils date to about 1000 years ago, but surprisingly accurate accounts of similar creatures in Malagasy folklore raise the possibility that small isolated populations of these hippos may have survived into more recent times. One of the most intriguing examples is the kilopilopitsofy, described as having large floppy ears and supposedly being sighted as recently as the 1970s.

Island Weirdness #20 – Megaladapis

While some of the lemurs of Madagascar were surprisingly sloth-like, another lineage of these primates evolved in a different direction entirely.

Megaladapis was built similarly to a koala, with a rather squat body and hands and feet adapted for clinging onto branches. Three different species have been identified, with the largest measuring around 1.5m long (4′11″).

Its skull resembled that of a cow, with eyes on the sides of its head, a long snout, and powerful chewing jaw muscles for processing its diet of tough leaves. It also had a very unusual nose for a primate, with nasal bones similar to rhinos – suggesting it may have had an enlarged prehensile upper lip used for grasping foliage.

Much like some of the sloth lemurs, carbon dating of subfossil remains indicates that these “koala lemurs” may have survived until surprisingly recently – possibly only going extinct about 500-600 years ago.

Island Weirdness #19 – Archaeoindris fontoynontii

The small and medium-sized sloth lemurs of Madagascar were incredibly convergent with modern tree sloths, and the biggest member of the group likewise seems to have been the closest they came to evolving a ground sloth equivalent.

Archaeoindris was the largest known lemur – and one of the largest primates – similar in size to a modern gorilla at about 1.5m tall (4′11″). It would have been a slow-moving animal which fed mostly on leaves, and while it was still capable of climbing around in larger trees it was probably much too bulky for upside-down suspension like its smaller relatives, and would likely have had to regularly traverse the ground to reach new feeding sites.

It seems to have been a fairly rare member of the ecosystem, living only in the Central Highlands, and the last known remains date to just over 2000 years ago – around the same time that humans first reached that area of the island. Sadly a combination of factors such as the giant lemurs’ slow reproductive rate, habitat loss, and hunting pressure was too much for their population to recover from all at once, and they probably went extinct very soon after that date.

Island Weirdness #18 – Palaeopropithecus

The island of Madagascar has been isolated from other landmasses for almost 90 million years, and as a result there are many lineages present there found nowhere else on Earth.

Lemurs are one of the island’s most famous residents, having arrived from Africa via a rafting event sometime early in the Cenozoic and evolving to fill the ecological niches occupied elsewhere by monkeys and apes. But while there are around 100 lemur species alive today, there used to be more before the arrival of humanssubfossil remains from the last 25,000 years hint at an ecology with even greater diversity, and types of lemurs much larger than any still living today.

The sloth lemurs, as their name suggests, resembled modern sloths in a remarkable case of convergent evolution. With long limbs and long hooked fingers and toes they were adapted for swinging through trees and hanging from branches, feeding on a wide range of plant material such as leaves, fruit, and seeds.

Palaeopropithecus was one of the larger members of this group, and the most specialized for sloth-like upside-down suspension. Three different species have been identified, with the biggest (Palaeopropithecus maximus) possibly measuring around 1m long (3′3″).

It probably spent almost its entire life in the trees, and would have been slow and awkward on the ground. Malagasy folklore about a creature known as the tretretretre or tratratratra, which couldn’t navigate on smooth flat surfaces, may even represent a cultural memory of Palaeopropithecus from before its extinction – which may have happened as recently as within the last 500-1000 years.

Almost-Living Fossils Month #20 – Some Very Spiky Turtles

The meiolaniformes were a group of terrestrial turtles that first appeared in the fossil record in the Early Cretaceous, around 125 million years ago. Although they were originally thought to be cryptodirans, more recent studies suggest they weren’t actually quite true turtles at all, instead being close evolutionary cousins to them in a much older and more “primitive” lineage that may go back as far as the Triassic.

They’re known mainly from South America and Oceania, but they may have had a more global distribution during the Cretaceous, with some fossils from the northern continents sometimes being classified as members of the group. However, only the South American meiolaniformes seem to have actually survived through the end-Cretaceous extinction.

The most distinctive meiolaniformes were the heavily armored meiolaniids, which first appeared in Patagonia during the Early Eocene (~48 mya). With large horns on their heads and thorn-like spikes along their long tails, they seem to have convergently evolved to fill the same sort of large-herbivore-tank niche as ankylosaurs and glyptodonts.

They also had fairly large nasal cavities, which might indicate a well-developed sense of smell – or may have been an adaptation for regulating the heat and moisture content of each breath, similar to the complex noses of ankylosaurs.

The South American meiolaniformes all went extinct around the end of the Eocene (~33 mya), but some meiolaniids had already dispersed across to Australia via Antarctica (before the continents had fully separated, and before Antarctica had frozen over) and they continued to survive there for most of the rest of the Cenozoic. They even went on to spread to various islands around Oceania, suggesting they were able to float and swim like modern giant tortoises.

The largest Australian meiolaniids reached sizes of around 2.5m long (8′2″), making them some of the biggest of all known terrestrial turtles. These giant forms went extinct in the Late Pleistocene, around 50,000 years ago, alongside much of the other Australian megafauna.

A few smaller varieties hung on in smaller islands to the east, with one of the latest-surviving species being Meiolania platyceps on Lord Howe island. It was only about half the size of its biggest Australian relatives – an example of insular dwarfism – and lived into the Late Holocene just 3000-2000 years ago.

Meiolania species on other islands seem to have gone extinct after the arrival of humans. But Lord Howe Island appears to have never been inhabited prior to European settlement in the late 1700s, so it’s unclear why this last of the meiolaniformes disappeared.

[Edit: A 2018 study of Meiolania platyceps’ anatomy suggests it may have been more aquatic than previously thought. It might have been something like a giant herbivorous snapping turtle or an armored reptilian hippo, bottom-walking around in coastal lagoons, with its big nasal cavity housing salt glands.]

Almost-Living Fossils Month #11 – The Lost Island Murderer

The modern solenodons, today found only on the Caribbean/Antillean islands of Cuba and Hispaniola, represent the last living survivors of a very ancient branch of placental mammals. Although they’re part of the eulipotyphlans – the lineage that also contains shrews, moles, and hedgehogs – their last common ancestor with the other members of that group dates back to over 70 million years ago.

And during their early evolutionary history, somewhere between the Late Cretaceous and mid-Eocene (~68-43 mya), the ancestors of the solenodons diverged into two different lineages: the solenodons themselves, and the nesophontids.

Known only from skulls and jumbled partial skeletal remains, nesophontids seem to have been fairly similar to their solenodon cousins. They would have been shrew-like in appearance, varying in total size from 5 to 20cm long (2-8″), with slender flexible snouts that they used to sniff out their small invertebrate prey. They also probably had a venomous bite like the solenodons, since their canine teeth had distinctive grooves for injecting toxic saliva.

Their remains have been found in various islands around the Caribbean, in Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, the United States Virgin Islands, and the Cayman Islands. Between six and twelve different species are represented, all in a single genus called Nesophontes (meaning “island murderer”) – and all of the known specimens are actually subfossils from the Holocene, dating to less than 12,000 years old.

These relatively young ages mean that pieces of nesophontid DNA have been successfully recovered from bones within preserved owl pellets, which is how we could confirm their close relationship to solenodons and the dates of their ancestors’ probable divergence. But we have absolutely no idea about the rest of their family history during the entire Cenozoic, such as how and when they originally colonized the Caribbean or whether they had any other extinct relatives in the Americas.

(There is one possible partial specimen from a piece of Dominican amber, dating to the Oligocene or Early Miocene, 29-18 million years ago, but it’s not clear whether it’s a nesophontid, a solenodon, or something else entirely.)

Nesophontes edithae was the only species of nesophontid living in Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands. It was the largest known member of the genus, at least 20cm long (8″), and may have been able to reach such a size due to the absence of competition from solenodons on those particular islands.

Along with its relatives around the Caribbean it seems to have survived frustratingly close to modern times, even existing alongside indigenous humans, with some remains only about 500 years old. But when the islands were colonized by Europeans from the 1490s onwards, the combination of the introduction of invasive Old World rats, new predators like domestic cats and dogs, and extensive deforestation probably killed off the nesophontids very quickly (along with all but two of the solenodon species).

Despite claims of fresh-looking remains in owl pellets and searches for surviving populations, there’s currently no convincing evidence for any living nesophontids, and radiocarbon dating has never found anything younger than 500-600 years old.