Wednesday, 13 January 2016

New dwarf elephant material from the Pleistocene of Cyprus

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New dwarf elephant material from the Pleistocene of Cyprus George ILIOPOULOS1,2, Athanassios ATHANASSIOU3, George KONSTANTINOU4

Recently, fossil specimens of elephants and hippos were collected by one of the authors (GK) from an open air locality, a roadcut section southeast of the town Ormideia in the area of Xylophagou (Eastern Cyprus). The broader area has already yielded fossil mammal remains (Bate, 1904; Boekschoten & Sondaar, 1972;, Poole & Robertson, 1998; Reece, 1995; Theodorou et al., 2005): five localities have been found on Cape Pyla, one in Achna and one near Xylophagou. The bone-bearing bed consists of a well-cemented green sandstone. The fossils were found scattered in a distance of more than 500 m. The sandstone is located in the middle of a sequence with alternations of marls and thin marly limestones with Cerastoderma shells, overlain by coarse and poorly sorted conglomerates. The marls and marly limestones indicate deposition in a lagoonal environment. According to Poole and Robertson (1998), these sediments belong to the Fanglomerate Group, can be correlated with their Unit 3 and thus the age of the sediments is early Late Pleistocene. The presence of scattered bones in the sandstone implies the presence of a transportation mechanism that spread the bones in a fairly wide area.
Cyprus is a typical large Mediterranean Island that during the Late Pleistocene was inhabited by an endemic island fauna, consisting of pigmy hippopotamuses (Phanourios minor), dwarf elephants (Elephas (Palaeoloxodon) cypriotes), a small carnivore (Genetta plesictoides), micromammals (such as Mus cypriacus), birds, reptiles and amphibians. Until now more than 40 fossiliferous localities have been found on the island (van der Geer et al., 2010), the majority of which are caves, collapsed caves and rockshelters (Hadjisterkotis & Reese, 2008). In all these localities the remains of Ph. minor are by far the dominant elements in the bone accumulations, with elephant findings —when found in a locality— practically scarce (Simmons, 2000; Hadjisterkotis & Reese, 2008). Moreover, the condition of the recovered material, especially of the long bones, is rather poor, as most of them are fragmented or incomplete. The material recovered at Ormideia comprises mainly cranial and postcranial elements of dwarf elephants and pigmy hippos. In addition to mammalian specimens, a small number of bird bones that belong to a large raptor have been also collected. Unlike all other Cypriot localities, the collected P. minor specimens are outnumbered by the elephant ones, making the latter the dominant taxon of the assemblage. The elephant material consists of a mandible, four complete molars, one complete tusk, a complete tibia, fragments of long bones, vertebrae and several carpal, tarsal and metapodial bones. According to a number of authors (Boekschoten & Sondaar, 1972; Simmons, 2000; Davies & Lister, 2001; Herridge, 2010) there is an indication that possibly a second ancestral species of a larger and older dwarf elephant existed on Cyprus during the Late Pleistocene. However, the number of elephant specimens that are referable to this large form is very small (locality Achna and four other sites). The size of the newly collected specimens from Ormideia is also larger than the respective known specimens of E. cypriotes (Bate, 1904; Herridge, 2010). Thus, it is quite possible that these specimens are taxonomically related to the larger elephant from Achna. The size of the tibia (length 272 mm) is within the range of specimens from Tilos Island and Puntali Cave on Sicily, indicating a similar size with the two taxa (E. tiliensis and E. mnaidriensis respectively).
The new collected material has not yet been studied in detail, so that its taxonomic affinities with the other samples of Cypriot elephants are still unresolved. For the time being and until we have the chance to study the other large elephant material or proceed with excavations in the locality we preliminarily refer this material to E. cf. cypriotes.

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