Thursday, September 12, 2013

Pygmy/Dwarf Elephants--Island Dwarfing/Insular Dwarfism

Photograph of a fossil cast of a pygmy species of Elephas/Palaeoloxodon falconeri skeleton taken at the North American Museum of Ancient Life.

 Insular dwarfism, a form of phyletic dwarfism, is the process and condition of the reduction in size of large animals over a number of generations when their population's range is limited to a small environment, primarily islands. This natural process is distinct from the intentional creation of dwarf breeds, called dwarfing. This process has occurred many times throughout evolutionary history, with examples including dinosaurs, like Europasaurus, and modern animals such as elephants and their relatives. This process, and other "island genetics" artifacts, can occur not only on traditional islands, but also in other situations where an ecosystem is isolated from external resources and breeding. This can include caves, desert oases, isolated valleys and isolated mountains ("sky islands"). Insular dwarfism is one aspect of the more general "island rule", which posits that when mainland animals colonize islands, small species tend to evolve larger bodies, and large species tend to evolve smaller bodies.
There are several proposed explanations for the mechanism which produces such dwarfism.
One is a selective process where only smaller animals trapped on the island survive, as food periodically declines to a borderline level. The smaller animals need fewer resources and smaller territories, and so are more likely to get past the break-point where population decline allows food sources to replenish enough for the survivors to flourish. Smaller size is also advantageous from a reproductive standpoint, as it entails shorter gestation periods and generation times.
In the tropics, small size should make thermoregulation easier.
Among herbivores, large size confers advantages in coping with both competitors and predators, so a reduction or absence of either would facilitate dwarfing; competition appears to be the more important factor.
For both herbivores and carnivores, island size, the degree of island isolation and the size of the ancestral continental species appear not to be of major direct importance to the degree of dwarfing.  However, when considering only the body masses of recent top herbivores and carnivores, and including data from both continental and island land masses, the body masses of the largest species in a land mass were found to scale to the size of the land mass, with slopes of about 0.5 log(body mass/kg) per log(land area/km2).  There were separate regression lines for endothermic top predators, ectothermic top predators, endothermic top herbivores and (on the basis of limited data) ectothermic top herbivores, such that food intake was 7 to 24-fold higher for top herbivores than for top predators, and about the same for endotherms and ectotherms of the same trophic level (this leads to ectotherms being 5 to 16 times heavier than corresponding endotherms.)

Pigmy elephants, at the Surrey Zoological Gardens   1854

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Wade: I thought this was called insular nanism. I have heard that there were Pygmy elephants on islands in the Mediterranean and on the island of Komoda in Indonesia, and that insular nanism is a way in which a species that is already doomed manages to stave off extinction for a while longer. It's strange that on islands reptiles tend to get bigger, mammals get smaller, and birds tend toward albinism for some reason. I guess that Sumatran tigers exhibit insular nanism and somewhere I read that there are no leopards on Sumatra because the tiger has usurped the leopard's ecological niche. I think there are Pygmy elephants on Borneo. Sincerely Paul