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

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Chemistry

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 This grant aimed to test the impact of Quaternary climate change (and concomitant sea-level variation) on mammalian evolution, using the 'model system' of dwarfing on Mediterranean islands.

We have contributed significantly to the construction of an absolute chronology for the Middle to Late Quaternary of the central and eastern Mediterranean, using a battery of dating techniques (optically-stimulated luminescence, electron spin
resonance, amino acid racemisation, uranium-series).

This has enabled us to provide constrained dates on the major taxa of Mediterranean dwarf elephants and deer, and on the time of dispersal of ancestral mammal taxa to the islands.

New fieldwork conducted on classic dwarf mammal localities, and new excavations have allowed the collection of in situ fossils with directly-linked samples and measurements for dating.

This has enabled us to understand better the taxonomy of Mediterranean island deer and elephant species, in relation to their mainland ancestors, providing the power to isolate factors and test hypotheses.

We have made considerable progress on developing a method for amino acid dating a closed system within tooth enamel, which a new PhD studentship has extended to provide a powerful method for dating. This is currently being written up for publication.
Exploitation Route The chronological control now developed at key sites will allow other researchers to explore patterns and causes of independent island dwarfing across a series of islands in one region. It will also aid in the reconstruction of Mediterranean sea level in response to the global climate signal. Once published, the new dating method develop would be ripe for exploitation at a range of international sites.
Sectors Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

 
Description Our field visits to Sicily were reported widely in the newspapers and on television, capturing the interest of the community. Our scientific findings are currently in preparation for publication. The technique developed formed part of an outreach activity that was funded by the Royal Society of Chemistry and introduced to >2500 people in summer 2017.
First Year Of Impact 2010
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description English Heritage Scientific Advisors meeting
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact The advice given to the English Heritage Science Advisors has influenced their management of Pleistocene site research.
 
Description NERC Doctoral Training Award
Amount £67,000 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 12/2012 
End 02/2016
 
Description Outreach grant
Amount £1,550 (GBP)
Organisation Royal Society of Chemistry 
Sector Learned Society
Country United Kingdom
Start 12/2017 
 
Description QRA New Research Workers Award
Amount £1,470 (GBP)
Organisation Quaternary Research Association 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2018 
End 06/2018
 
Description Wisdom teeth: refining our understanding of mammalian evolution through dating dental enamel
Amount £796,345 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/S010211/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2019 
End 07/2022
 
Description Chem@Work event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Workshop activity based around our research which was undertaken by ~ 100 KS4 schoolchildren. Sparked questions and discussions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Chemistry World article: Dating the Age of Humans 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Interviewed for magazine article about research on amino acid dating and its importance for dating early human sites.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/2015/11/archaeological-dating-age-humans-cave-art
 
Description Chemistry World podcast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interviewed for a podcast about the Chemistry World article on dating early human sites.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/2016/02/podcast-december-2015-cataracts-chocolate-kit-origins
 
Description INQUA AAR spin-out workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact The INQUA Congress in July 2011 provided an excellent opportunity for the small AAR community to meet for the first time in 13 years. In conjunction with Prof. Darrell Kaufman (Northern Arizona University), Dr. Kirsty Penkman organised a dedicated AAR session as part of the Congress, followed by a day-long break-out workshop and dinner for all the active international AAR laboratories (report in Eos: Wehmiller et al., 2011). It gave the community a great forum to discuss some of the major issues facing the field, as well as some of the more nitty-gritty aspects of our work, and presentations and discussions were led by a range of researchers from across the labs. The two inter-laboratory trials and the NSF-funded development of an AAR database (hosted by NOAA to enable long-term data preservation) were discussed in detail, alongside methodological developments and data processing issues.

Kirsty Penkman and Darrell Kaufman edited a special issue of Quaternary Geochronology arising out of the session, and new collaborative grant proposals are also being submitted.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description Interview for "Analytical Scientist" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Kirsty Penkman was interviewed for the "Analytical Scientist" magazine, which resulted in a multi-page article.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://theanalyticalscientist.com/issues/1117/on-the-dating-scene/
 
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 Leeds Geological Society invited talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The talk led to questions and discussion.

Interest from the members of the society, and an invite to return to give another talk.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2007,2012
 
Description Nursery visit to introduce science 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact An outreach activity was designed and delivered for nursery-age children to introduce them to "science" and what a scientist does. This sparked fantastic questions and discussions with both children and staff.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Palaeo Centre launch 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The talk and posters led to a lot of interest and discussion.

After the talk I was approached by several members of the public eager to learn more about our work.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
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 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/
 
Description Yornight at York Archaeological Trust 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Hands-on display enabled public to see and touch materials, and allowed discussions.

Arose interest in audience
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://yornight.com/