Island Weirdness #44 — Tiny Elephants On Parade Part 4: Mammoth-Mimics & Mini-Mammoths

In the cool-temperate climate of Pleistocene Japan one type of small elephant seems to have convergently become somewhat of a mammoth-mimic, with twisting tusks and possibly even a thick coat of hair.

A stylized illustration of an extinct mammoth-like elephant. It has long twisting tusks, small ears, and a speculative coat of long hair.
Palaeoloxodon naumanni

Palaeoloxodon naumanni lived during the late Pleistocene, between about 500,000 and 16,000 years ago. At about 2-2.5m tall at the shoulder (6’6″-8’2″) it was still fairly large, similar in size to the smallest living elephant species — but it was a dwarf in comparison to its immediate ancestors, the absolutely enormous Asian straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon namadicus). 

Actual woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) were also present in Japan, but the two similar-looking elephants inhabited different environments — Palaeoloxodon naumanni preferred the southern forests, while the true mammoths roamed the colder north.

Humans arrived in Japan around 40,000-30,000 years ago, so Palaeoloxodon naumanni actually coexisted with them for quite some time. Although it was hunted, it seems to have mainly been climate change towards the end of the last glacial maximum that led to its extinction.

A stylized illustration of an extinct pgymy mammoth. It has curving tusks, small ears, and a speculative coat of hair.
Mammuthus exilis

Over on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, at least 60,000 years ago, some huge Columbian mammoths (Mammuthus columbi) swam the 6.5km (4 miles) distance to the ancient island of Santa Rosae — a landmass that today is mostly submerged, with its remaining peaks forming the modern California Channel Islands.

With a lack of large predators and then steadily rising sea levels reducing the available habitat on their new home, the mammoths shrank into a dwarfed species known as the Channel Islands pygmy mammoth (Mammuthus exilis). Standing around 1.75-2m at the shoulder (5’9″-6’6″), they were less than half the size of their ancestors and had only about 10% of the body mass.

The pygmy mammoths survived until about 13,000 years ago, around the same time that early Paleoindians arrived. While they may also have been hunted by humans, the warming post-glacial climate is currently thought to be the main factor in their extinction, changing the types of vegetation on their still-shrinking islands and reducing fresh water sources. 

(And if you prefer your pygmy mammoths less speculatively hairy, there’s always the version I did for PBS Eons earlier this year.)

Island Weirdness #13 – Tiny Elephants On Parade Part 1: Japan

Part of the “island rule” is that large animals often become smaller – and no group seems to exemplify this more than the elephants.

Although they’re the largest living land animals today, and in the past included some of the largest known land mammals ever, ancient elephants also frequently ended up on islands thanks to their ability to swim long distances. They produced many different dwarfed forms around much of the world, and a few of them will be featured intermittently throughout both months of this theme.

The earliest known examples were the stegodontids of Japan in the early Miocene. These animals weren’t quite true elephants, instead being close evolutionary cousins to them, and had two small additional tusks in their lower jaws similar to the related gomphotheres.

A stylized illustration of an extinct dwarf elephant. It has four tusks – two short straight ones in its upper jaw, and another two smaller ones in its lower jaw.
Stegolophodon pseudolatidens

Stegolophodon pseudolatidens first arrived in Japan about 18 million years ago, and within just 2 million years they’d developed into insular dwarfs that were probably around 2m tall at the shoulder (6′6″)– still reasonably large, but only about 60% the size of their mainland relatives.

A stylized illustration of an extinct dwarf elephant. It has long curving tusks and small ears.
Stegodon aurorae

Much later in the Early Pleistocene another small almost-elephant appeared in Japan. Living between about 2 million years ago and 700,000 years ago, Stegodon aurorae was about the same size as the then-extinct Stegolophodon but probably wasn’t descended from them. Instead it was probably the result of a separate arrival and dwarfing of a larger Stegodon species from mainland Asia.