We left off last time with the dwarf stegodontids of Flores, but other Indonesian islands also had their own populations of unusually small elephant-relatives — so here’s a few more to start off this month!
Sinomastodon bumiajuensis lived on the island of Java during the early Pleistocene, about 2-1.5 million years ago. It stood around 2m tall at the shoulder (6’6″), less than half the size of most other Sinomastodon species from mainland Asia. Although it looked convergently similar to modern elephants it was actually a member of the gomphotheres, much more closely related to the weird “shovel-tuskers” than to any living species.
Stegodon semedoensis, also from the early Pleistocene of Java about 1.5 million years ago, is only known from a few isolated molar teeth — but the size of those teeth suggest it was one of the smallest known pygmy stegodontids. It was probably no more than 1.2m at the shoulder (3’11”), comparable in size to its close relative Stegodon sondaari over on Flores.
Meanwhile on Sulawesi, Elephas celebensis (sometimes called Stegoloxodon celebensis) was an actual true elephant closely related to the modern Asian elephant. Living during the late Pliocene and early Pleistocene, between about 2.5 million and 800,000 years ago, it was only 1.5m tall (5′) and had a second set of tusks in its lower jaw, a “primitive” feature retained from the gomphothere-like ancestors of modern elephants.
At the same time Sulawesi also had yet another small stegodontid, Stegodon sompoensis, also around 1.5m tall.
The cooling climate of the Pleistocene and dropping sea levels eventually connected the islands of western Indonesia to the Sundaland landmass of mainland Asia. Influxes of new predators and competitors — and early humans — probably drove these endemic small elephants to extinction.
Much like Japan, ancient Flores had a succession of dwarf stegodontids – close relatives of modern elephants that were capable of island-hopping through Indonesia by swimming.
Stegodon sondaari lived on Flores during the Early Pleistocene, about 900,000 years ago, and was the size of a small water buffalo at just 1.2m (3′11″) tall at the shoulder. It was probably descended from the larger Stegodon trigonocephalus, known from Java, and it had proportionally short legs which may have been an adaptation to clambering over rough terrain and steep inclines.
Around 850,000 years ago Stegodon sondaari disappeared from Flores, probably due to a large volcanic eruption, but a new wave of stegodontids quickly recolonized the island. The mid-sized Stegodon florensis probably originated from either Java to the west or Sulawesi to the north, and eventually evolved into a new dwarfed subspecies.
Stegodon florensis insularis wasn’t quite as small as its predecessor, standing around 1.8m tall (5′10″). It probably didn’t shrink quite so much due to the existing presence of various predators on Flores, since it was likely the main prey of large Komodo dragons, it was hunted by Homo floresiensis, and it may also have been occasionally targeted by giant storks.
It seems to have disappeared around the same time as several other unique endemic species, between 50,000 and 20,000 years ago, due to either climate change, another volcanic eruption, or the arrival of modern humans – or perhaps a combination of all of those factors.
And that’s all for this month… but Island Weirdness will be back later for part 2, with more giants, more dwarfs, and so many elephants.
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.
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.
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.