Thursday, 18 August 2016

Elephants are the end of a 60m-year lineage – last of the megaherbivores


Four-tuskers, hoe-tuskers, shovel-tuskers are all wiped out – now only a fragment of this keystone species remains 

Friday 12 August 201607.00 BSTLast modified on Friday 12 August 201619.26 BST

If, just 800 generations ago, we took a summer holiday to Crete, Cyprus or Malta, we would have found familiar-looking islands, filled with the flowers and birds we can enjoy today. But bursting through the scrub would’ve been one surprise: a pygmy elephant, one metre high, one of many different elephant species that once roamed every continent apart from Australia and Antarctica.

The 20,000-year-old pygmy elephants of the Mediterranean islands may appear as fantastical as the woolly mammoths which still ambled across one Alaskan island just 5,600 years ago. But these animals’ lives, and deaths, take on a new pertinence today. They lived a blink of an eye ago in evolutionary time and shared the planet with modern humans. And the fate of these lost elephants, warns Prof Adrian Lister, paleobiologist at the Natural History Museum, is analogous to the troubled future facing their close relatives, the African and Asian elephants threatened with obliteration today.

“People are more likely to drive things to extinction on islands than on the mainland,” says Lister. “One of the problems with living elephants is not just that their numbers are going down and down but that their populations are very fragmented. We call it islandisation. National parks are islands today. If you’re a population of 50 elephants on a national park in Nepal, surrounded by agricultural land, you may as well be on an oceanic island in terms of population size and genetic diversity.”

When humans spread beyond Africa, they shared the planet with 42 species of terrestrial mammal weighing more than a tonne. Now only elephants, hippos and rhinos survive. The two contemporary elephant species (some scientists now say the African elephant is two distinct species, the savannah elephant and forest elephant, although debate still rages) are the last representatives of the megafauna, or megaherbivores, who have played an enormous part in shaping life on earth for far longer than Homo sapiens.





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