The smallest mammoth ever known to have existed has been confirmed to have lived on the island of Crete — and scientists believe that it was an adult which had evolved into a dwarf species of the giant beasts.
A team of palaeontologists from London's Natural History Museum suggest that the adults of this dwarf mammoth species would have grown to the size of a modern baby elephant, standing just over a metre tall at the shoulders.
While the remains were originally found over a century ago, it's always been unclear whether the bones belonged to an elephant or a mammoth. In their report, which appears in the Royal Society journal Proceedings B, the researchers explain that it was a new analysis of an upper foreleg which enabled them to assess that the creature was in fact an adult dwarf mammoth.
On islands, there's an evolutionary advantage to being smaller: it means an animal can get away with consuming fewer resources and still survive. That means that, over time, it's natural for a species which finds itself on an island to evolve into a dwarf form. Victoria Herridge, one of the researchers, explains to the BBC:
"Dwarfism is a well-known evolutionary response of large mammals to island environments... Our findings show that on Crete, island dwarfism occurred to an extreme degree, producing the smallest mammoth known so far."
The researchers speculate that mammoths first found themselves on the island of Crete as early as 3.5 million years ago — and, over time, became rather less mammoth. [Royal Society journal Proceedings B, BBC]