An 800,000-year-old tooth that paleontologists originally thought belonged to an elephant is actually from a miniature-sized mammoth. The ancient tooth from the newly-dubbed Mammuthus creticus was unearthed over 100 years ago in Crete, and at the time, scientists declared that it belonged to a dwarf elephant descended from the mainland European elephant. Last year, scientists found an upper leg bone from the same animal and determined that this little guy stood only 1.13 meters tall. More interesting to paleontologists is what further study on the tooth fossil has shown. Victoria Herridge and Adrian Lister, paleontologists at The Natural History Museum in London, who led the study, say that the tooth has enamel patterns characteristic of a mammoth, not an elephant. The surface enamel has ridges and loops just like those of other mammoths, and the ratio of height to width of the tooth is also distinctly mammoth-ish. This study agrees with a 2006 DNA study that early argued for its status as a mammoth. Mammuthus creticus, now declared to be the world’s smallest mammoth, is an example of a creature that has undergone “island dwarfism,” a process that occurs when organisms living on islands tend toward smaller sizes due to limited resources. Faced with restricted food supply, animals that are smaller in stature can better withstand natural selection. Furthermore, island species evolve much faster than mainland species because the populations are generally smaller and more isolated. Other Mediterranean islands have also shown evidence of dwarfed versions of animals, including deer, hippos, and elephants.
Read more about Mammuthus creticus at Science News.
The published study can be found in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society, Part B.
Read the 2006 DNA study in Biology Letters.
Read more about island dwarfism at PBS.org.