Estimating the dwarfing rate of an extinct Sicilian elephant

Sina Baleka*, Victoria L. Herridge, Giulio Catalano, Adrian M. Lister, Marc R. Dickinson, Carolina Di Patti, Axel Barlow, Kirsty E.H. Penkman, Michael Hofreiter, Johanna L.A. Paijmans

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Evolution on islands, together with the often extreme phenotypic changes associated with it, has attracted much interest from evolutionary biologists. However, measuring the rate of change of phenotypic traits of extinct animals can be challenging, in part due to the incompleteness of the fossil record. Here, we use combined molecular and fossil evidence to define the minimum and maximum rate of dwarfing in an extinct Mediterranean dwarf elephant from Puntali Cave (Sicily).1 Despite the challenges associated with recovering ancient DNA from warm climates,2 we successfully retrieved a mitogenome from a sample with an estimated age between 175,500 and 50,000 years. Our results suggest that this specific Sicilian elephant lineage evolved from one of the largest terrestrial mammals that ever lived3 to an island species weighing less than 20% of its original mass with an estimated mass reduction between 0.74 and 200.95 kg and height reduction between 0.15 and 41.49 mm per generation. We show that combining ancient DNA with paleontological and geochronological evidence can constrain the timing of phenotypic changes with greater accuracy than could be achieved using any source of evidence in isolation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3606-3612.e7
Number of pages14
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number16
Early online date18 Jun 2021
Publication statusPublished - 23 Aug 2021

Bibliographical note

© 2021 Elsevier Inc. This is an author-produced version of the published paper. Uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self-archiving policy.


  • ancient DNA
  • dwarf elephants
  • evolutionary rates
  • island evolution
  • mitochondrial DNA
  • Palaeoloxodon

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