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April 1st, 2013
Scientists have long known that oceanic archipelagos have been home to incidents of gigantism as well as dwarfism. Theories abound about the origins of such adaptations but generally it is tied to available food source and lack of predation. 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.
The Galapagos Islands are well known for their giant tortoise, one of two archipelagos which support these gigantic reptiles (the other being the Seychelles islands off the coast of Africa). But dwarfism, not thought to be a feature of Galapagos fauna, has now been discovered on the island of Fernandina and supporting evidence will soon be published in the journal, Nature.
Post-graduate geology student Eamonn Rockwell was working earlier this year on Fernandina looking for fossil remains in lava tubes on this youngest of Galapagos Islands. Following in the footsteps of his father, well-known North American climber, David Rockwell, the younger Mr. Rockwell was rappelling down one of the many sinkholes on the island when he made a remarkable discovery.
“I saw a glimmering, white object, and headed towards it, assuming it was the natural phosphorescence present in caves throughout the island. I was hoping for a bird, or perhaps even a giant rodent skeleton, but was frankly floored when I came upon an intact remains of a dwarf elephant.” Mr. Rockwell admitted, “I am no biologist, but I am certain that this skeleton finding is a first in Galapagos.” He went on to discover several additional skeletons, in various stages of disintegration, but enough to convince him at he had stumbled upon a herd of Fernandina dwarf elephants.
The findings are now being reviewed by dwarf elephant experts in Malta and Cyprus to coordinate data and add the Galapagos archipelago to known dwarfism sites. National Park officials are already considering opening some of the caves to tourism in the near future, taking all necessary precautions to protect the fragile remains.
Johannah Barry, President of Galapagos Conservancy, reflected on this news. “This is yet another example of the extraordinary richness still to be discovered in Galapagos. Mr. Darwin spoke of endless forms most wonderful, and we know that the archipelago continues to reveal ecological processes and new flora and fauna, as well important biological beginnings.”
She continued, “We hope our supporters and friends will find this news as fascinating as we do, and being completely facetious, a delightful reminder that April 1 is upon us once again.”