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Estimating the dwarfing rate of an extinct Sicilian elephant

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Publication details

JournalCurrent Biology
DateAccepted/In press - 17 May 2021
DateE-pub ahead of print - 18 Jun 2021
DatePublished (current) - 23 Aug 2021
Issue number16
Number of pages14
Pages (from-to)3606-3612.e7
Early online date18/06/21
Original languageEnglish


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.

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

    Research areas

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

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