Biotic responses to environmental change: dwarf mammals of Mediterranean islands as evolutionary experiments in the Quaternary

Lead Research Organisation: The Natural History Museum
Department Name: Earth Sciences

Abstract

Climate change over the last million years has seen rapid fluctuations between ice ages and warmer 'interglacials'. At the height of an ice age the sea level could be up to 120 metres lower than it is today; then, when the climate warmed, the sea would rise once more. Understanding the impact of these changes has direct relevance to understanding the possible ramifications of the current global warming trend. The impact of such changes was felt most strongly on islands. Many island features are linked with sea level - they become larger and closer to the mainland (maybe forming a landbridge) as sea level drops; the opposite happens when levels rise. We know from modern islands that the smaller they are, the fewer species they can support. Island species are also often unique to that island, and they are vulnerable to extinction. Consequently, island species form a 'front-line' of response to climate change. We will investigate the effects of climate change over the last million years on island elephants and deer in the Mediterranean. Their commonest evolutionary response was to become dwarfed - a phenomenon that came to prominence with the discovery of a fossil dwarfed human on the island of Flores in Indonesia. In some species, dwarfing was extreme (elephants on Sicily, for example, weighed 150 kg, compared to a mainland ancestor of 10,000 kg), and we will use this as a 'marker' for evolutionary change. Until now, no one has considered the evolution of dwarf mammals in the context of climate change, because there are few reliable dates to tell us when these species evolved. To answer these questions we will first conduct detailed examination and measurement of fossils of the dwarf deer and elephants preserved in museums. We already have similar data on mainland species, and the comparison will allow us to determine how many species of dwarfs there were, and their ancestry. Comparison of measurements will then allow us to calculate the percentage reduction in body size and weight, and more detailed features of the teeth and bones will reveal whether the dwarfs had become specially adapted to the island environments. Secondly, we will use cutting-edge techniques to determine the geological age of the dwarf species. We will employ four different methods of dating that between them will allow us to determine ages within a narrow range of error. These methods use tooth remains of the mammals, and shells and sediments from the deposits in which they were found, and also require measurements to be taken at the sites. To this end we will visit a number of key localities on Sicily, Malta, Crete and Cyprus where remains of dwarf elephants have been found, and conduct small excavations to produce fresh material for dating and for comparison with previously-excavated fossils. Thirdly, we will use existing knowledge about climate and sea-level changes over the past million years to plot maps of the changing size and shape of the islands and, in the case of Sicily and Malta, their possible connections to each other and to the mainland. Putting together these three strands, we will be able to determine how global changes impacted the evolution of the mammals. Did major climatic events trigger bursts of evolution on many islands? What was the speed of evolutionary change? Did the dwarf species endure for a long time, or did they soon become extinct, perhaps due to further climate change? Did the same thing happen repeatedly in a cyclic fashion? Was the degree of dwarfing influenced by island size, time of separation, or other factors such as available vegetation? The results of this project will provide a microcosm of the impact of global change on mammal evolution. It will also help explain a long-debated phenomenon - that of island dwarfing. It will, finally, refine methods and produce data of broader application, especially in the proposed dating of important geological sites around the Mediterranean.
 
Description The insular dwarfism seen in Pleistocene elephants has come to epitomize the island rule; yet our understanding of this phenomenon is hampered by poor taxonomy. For Mediterranean dwarf elephants, where the most extreme cases of insular dwarfism are observed, a key systematic question remains unresolved: are all taxa phyletic dwarfs of a single mainland species Palaeoloxodon antiquus (straight-tusked elephant), or are some referable to Mammuthus (mammoths)? Ancient DNA and geochronological evidence have been used to support a Mammuthus origin for the Cretan 'Palaeoloxodon' creticus, but these studies have been shown to be flawed. On the basis of existing collections and recent field discoveries, we present new, morphological evidence for the taxonomic status of 'P'. creticus, and show that it is indeed a mammoth, most probably derived from Early Pleistocene Mammuthus meridionalis or possibly Late Pliocene Mammuthus rumanus. We also show that Mammuthus creticus is smaller than other known insular dwarf mammoths, and is similar in size to the smallest dwarf Palaeoloxodon species from Sicily and Malta, making it the smallest mammoth species known to have existed. These findings indicate that extreme insular dwarfism has evolved to a similar degree independently in two elephant lineages.
Exploitation Route Dating of key sites helps understand Mediterranean island history and faunal history.
Sectors Education,Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2012/05/04/rspb.2012.0671.full.pdf
 
Description Research has demonstrated quantitative methodology for establishing parallel evolution in fossil record and provided example of Mediterranean dwarf mammoths and elephants. Impact on other researchers as model case study.
First Year Of Impact 2012
Sector Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

 
Description Leverhulme research grant
Amount £180,110 (GBP)
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2013 
End 09/2016
 
Description Invited lecture: Manchester Metropolitan University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Invited lecture to the Chemistry and related departments at Manchester Metropolitan University, at which our research was showcased.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Invited lecture: University of Reading 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Invited lecture to the Chemistry and related departments at University of Reading, at which our research was showcased.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Invited lecture: the Open University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Invited lecture to the Chemistry and related departments at the Open University, at which our research was showcased.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Invited talk to celebrate 10 years of Gold Athena Swan at York Chemistry, May 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Talk given which showcased our research and the power of collaborating across disciplines.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Invited talk to school students from Archbishops Holgate School at the National Science Learning Centre 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Talk given to showcase our research to school students, parents and the general public, which sparked questions and discussion afterwards.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Invited talk to the Association Française pour l'Étude du Quaternaire, Paris, Dec 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited speaker to a conference at the French Geological Society, run by the Association Française pour l'Étude du Quaternaire. Sparked questions and considerable discussion, and requests for further work.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Invited talk, Royal Society of Chemistry Yorkshire section, Leeds, March 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited lecture to the Royal Society of Chemistry Yorkshire secion, at which our research was showcased.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Mammoths: Ice Age Giants 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was chief scientific advisor to the Natural History Museum's exhibition 'Mammoths: Ice Age Giants', and made sure outputs from our funded research were included in the exhibition.

126,000 visitors saw the exhibition. I also did numerous media activities, special tours, etc.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://www.nhm.ac.uk/about-us/news/2014/may/emotional-welcome-for-beautiful-mammoth-lyuba130851.html
 
Description Pittcon Analytical Chemistry conference, Chicago, March 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Keynote speech at major international conference. Key contacts made.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Poster at the Quaternary Research Association meeting, London, Jan 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Poster presentation (Dickinson, M., Lister, A. & Penkman, K. 2016. Dating Quaternary mammalian remains: an amino acid racemisation approach. QRA Annual Discussion Meeting, Royal Holloway, London, Jan 2016).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Winchester Science Festival lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact lecture on Mediterranean dwarf mammals

Stimulated audience discussion
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description York Festival of Ideas "Discovery Zone" 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Presented our work at a public outreach event, with attendance by over 1500 individuals. The focus was on how chemistry can be used to understand the past, and through development of a range of activities around a "bog body", we were able to showcase the advances our research has made in this area. The feedback was excellent, with many reporting increased interest in science because of the event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL http://yorkfestivalofideas.com/2018/community/discovery-zone-2/
 
Description York Festival of Ideas "Science out of the lab" event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Presented our work at a public outreach event, with attendance by over 2500 individuals. The focus was on how chemistry can be used to understand the past, and through development of a range of activities around a "bog body", we were able to showcase the advances our research has made in this area. The feedback was excellent, with many reporting increased interest in science because of the event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://yorkfestivalofideas.com/2017/community/science-out-lab-fri/
 
Description York Festival of Ideas "Science out of the lab" event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Presented our work at a public outreach event, with attendance by over 1000 individuals.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://yorkfestivalofideas.com/2016/community-events/science-out-of-the-lab-2/
 
Description YorkTalks 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Public lecture as part of the launch of the University of York's research strategy.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/events/public-lectures/spring-2015/york-talks-2015/
 
Description Yornight 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Hands-on display enabled public to see and touch materials, and allowed discussions about how science can tell us about the past.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://yornight.com/2015/