During the mid-Pleistocene, between about 900,000 and 500,000 years ago, the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Sicily were connected and shared a unique ecosystem made of up a mix of weird endemic species. While the tiny elephants and giant swans are probably the most famous, there were also several other unusual animals such as dwarf hippos, huge owls, large cranes, giant tortoises, and big lizards.
And also massive rodents.
Leithia melitensis, the Maltese giant dormouse, was descended from garden dormice, but thanks to the lack of large land predators on Siculo-Malta it was able to evolve a much much larger body size – about 60-70cm long (2′-2’4″), almost the size of a cat.
Recent reconstructions of its skull have shown it was also proportioned differently compared to its tiny modern relatives, more chunkily built with a shorter and wider snout, bigger teeth, and thicker cheekbones that must have anchored some incredibly powerful muscles for chewing. It may have been eating a much more herbivorous diet than other dormice, processing a lot of tough fibrous vegetation.
It was a medium-sized duck, probably around 50cm long (1’8″), but it had much chunkier wing bones than its relatives, with noticeably shortened forearms – looking much more like the wings of an auk or penguin, and suggesting that it was a similar sort of wing propelled diver. This is incredibly weird for a duck, since every other known diving species uses feet for propulsion instead, and so Bambolinetta may be the only known waterfowl to ever develop this type of underwater locomotion.
It’s not clear whether it was still capable of flying or not. There were few predators in its habitat, so it may well have become completely flightless – and that could also be the reason it later went extinct. Sea levels in the region began to drop around 7 million years ago, reconnecting the Tusco-Sardinian island to the European mainland, and Bambolinetta‘s high level of ecological specialization and its potential island tameness would have given it little defence against an influx of new unfamiliar predators.
Isolated on Crete, with no predators and living at a time when the island was much smaller, it quickly dwarfed and became the tiniest known mammoth to ever exist, standing just 1.1m tall at the shoulder (3’7″). Not much is known about its ecology, but its teeth suggest it was a browser feeding on leaves and shrubs, possibly filling a similar niche to the mid-sized deer that came later.
This mini-mammoth seems to have gone extinct by the mid-Pleistocene, about 1 million years ago, around the time when rising sea levels during an interglacial phase may have submerged so much of the smaller proto-Crete that its population could no longer be supported.
Later in the mid-to-late Pleistocene, after the sea level dropped again and tectonic uplift brought Crete close to its modern dimensions, the small mammoths were replaced by both newly-arriving deer and Palaeoloxodon elephants, which evolved into the much more moderately dwarfed forms of Palaeoloxodon creutzburgi and Palaeoloxodon chaniensis.
To the north and east of Crete the Cyclades and Dodecanese islands had endemic dwarf elephants on at least eight islands, with the best known being the species that lived on Tilos.
Palaeoloxodon tiliensis stood about 1.8m tall (5’11”), on the larger side for a dwarf Mediterranean elephant but still one of the smallest palaeoloxodontines in the Aegean region. Several thousand specimens have been found, and radiocarbon dating shows it was a fairly recent evolutionary development, appearing just 45,000 years ago in the late Pleistocene.
This dwarf elephant was also the very latest surviving of its entire kind, living well into the Holocene until at least 4000 BCE. This is several thousand years after humans first arrived on Tilos, suggesting it was a rare case of an island elephant that managed to endure the effects of a human presence for quite some time.
Over on isolated Cyprus further to the east, the only native large mammals were the miniature hippos and an equally miniature elephant.
Palaeoloxodon cypriotes was smaller than the Aegean palaeoloxodontines, about 1.4m tall (4’7″), and much like its cousin on Tilos seems to have evolved very recently towards the end of the Pleistocene, sometime around 20,000 years ago.
It wasn’t the first dwarf elephant on Cyprus — there was a larger, earlier species known as Palaeoloxodon xylophagou at least 200,000 years ago — but it’s not clear whether these two species represent a single evolutionary line or two entirely different colonizations of the island.
Similarly to the hippos it lived alongside, Palaeoloxodon cypriotes disappeared shortly after humans arrived on Cyprus, between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago. Collections of its bones have been found in a rock shelter with evidence of having been burnt, suggesting that it was being actively hunted and cooked.
And that’s all for the Island Weirdness series! Even over two months there are still plenty of species I didn’t have time to feature, so this definitely won’t be the last we see of strange endemic species.
Thank you for following along — with a shoutout to my Patreon supporters! — and regular weekly art posts will resume here next Monday.
Cyprus is one of the most isolated islands in the Mediterranean, having had no close connections to the mainland for the last 5.3 million years and being uplifted to close to its modern size during the Pleistocene. As a result it had very few land mammals, all of which arrived by swimming or rafting: rodents, shrews, a genet, dwarf elephants, and a dwarf hippopotamus.
Hippopotamus minor (sometimes called Phanourios minor) seems to have been descended from the common hippo, which probably swam across to Cyprus from the Levant region sometime in the mid-to-late Pleistocene, around 400,000 years ago. Isolated with no predators and limited space it rapidly became dwarfed compared to its ancestors, reaching at most 75cm tall at the shoulder (2’6″) — making it the tiniest known island hippo, and slightly smaller than the modern pygmy hippo.
It became much more terrestrial, with more digitgrade feet adapted for walking and climbing over rugged rocky terrain. Its teeth suggest a diet of pig-like browsing on forest vegetation — and much like pigs (and other hippos) they may have been opportunistic omnivores occasionally also eating small animals and carrion.
Despite being so small for a hippo, it was still one of the largest animals living on Cyprus, weighing about the same as the dwarf elephants it lived alongside. It also seems to have been the most common of the mammals on the island, with remains of thousands of individuals having been found.
While larger dwarf hippos are known fromseveralother Mediterranean islands, the Cypriot species is the only one that seems to have survived into the early Holocene.
The earliest known evidence of humans in Cyprus comes from a rock shelter on the southern coast, dating to about 12,000 years ago, consisting of stone tools and a massive concentration of burned animal bones — with over 200,000 of them coming just from Hippopotamus minor. It’s possible that in addition to being so abundant on the island, the dwarf hippos’ evolution in the absence of predators meant they had no fear of humans and were much less aggressive than their larger relatives, making them particularly easy to hunt and kill.
…Or they were just especially tasty.
Later deposits from about 2000 years later show no sign of the hippos at all, with their role in the Cypriot ecosystem completely replaced by introduced species like deer, sheep, and goats.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.