Research

 

My research focuses on the evolution of dwarf elephants on Mediterranean islands during the Ice Age. When full-sized elephants from the European mainland — huge 4m tall mammoths or the equally big straight-tusked elephants — became isolated on islands like Sicily, Malta, Sardinia, Crete and Cyprus (as well as many Greek islands!), their evolutionary response was always the same: they evolved to become smaller, sometimes as small as just 1m tall as an adult. And they weren’t alone – deer and hippos on the same islands also became dwarfed, while rats and dormice evolved into new giant forms.

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The tibia (shin bone) of an adult dwarf elephant from Spinagallo Cave in Sicily. This would have belonged to an elephant that was less than 1m-tall.

I’m trying to find out when, why and how dwarf elephants evolved. It all started with my PhD at UCL (which is freely available to download here), and continues at the Natural History Museum, London, thanks to funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (2009-2013) and the Leverhulme Trust (2014-2016).

I study the fossilised remains of dwarf elephants that are kept in museums like the Natural History Museum. Most of these fossils were excavated over 100 years ago, when the techniques we use to date fossils hadn’t been invented. As a consequence we don’t know how old, geologically speaking, the dwarf elephants fossils are – a vital piece of information if we want to understand why, or how quickly, they evolved.

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Some of the Medidwarf team (clockwise from left): Adrian Lister, Jean-Luc Schwenninger, Kirsty Penkman and me looking at Dorothea Bate’s diaries and maps from her 1904 expedition to Crete. Photo (c) David Richards.

So I scour the archives of Victorian and Edwardian pioneers (like my hero Dorothea Bate) for clues about where they dug up their dwarf elephant fossils, and then use these clues to follow in those pioneers’ footsteps. With colleagues from the across the UK, Greece, Italy and Cyprus, I’ve been revisiting these sites to use modern methods like Uranium series dating, Optically Stimulated Luminescence dating, Electron Spin Resonance dating, and Amino Acid Racemisation to discover just exactly when different species of Mediterranean elephants evolved.

Working at Spinagallo Cave, Sicily. Thousands of bones of the 1m-tall dwarf elephant Palaeoloxodon falconeri were found here in the 1960s. We are trying to find out how old, geologically speaking, these fossils are. Photo (c) Dan Nita.

Working at Spinagallo Cave, Sicily. Thousands of bones of the 1m-tall dwarf elephant Palaeoloxodon falconeri were found here in the 1960s. We are trying to find out how old, geologically speaking, these fossils are. Photo (c) Dr Dan Nita.

 

Taking samples for Optically Stimulated Luminescence Dating at Contrada Frategiani, Sicily. I'm top, ably supported by Dr Kirsty Penkman and Gianni Insacco. Photo (c) Dr David Richards

Taking samples for Optically Stimulated Luminescence Dating at Contrada Frategiani, Sicily. I’m top, ably supported by Dr Kirsty Penkman and Gianni Insacco. Photo (c) Dr David Richards.

 

In pursuit of dwarf mammoths. Following in Dorothea Bate's footsteps in Crete. Photo (c) Dr David Richards.

In pursuit of dwarf mammoths. Following in Dorothea Bate‘s footsteps in Crete. Photo (c) Dr David Richards.

 

George Iliopoulos and I hunting for Kutri Cave, in Crete, where Dorothea Bate found fossils of dwarf deer. Imagine doing this in Edwardian dress! Photo (c) David Richards.

George Iliopoulos and me hunting for Kutri Cave, in Crete, where Dorothea Bate found fossils of dwarf deer. Imagine doing this in Edwardian dress! Photo (c) David Richards.

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