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26/12/2014

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A Who's Hugh of Aberdonian science

A Who's Hugh of Aberdonian science

What do you get if you put Aberdeen, the British Science Festival, and dwarf elephants together? Isn’t it obvious? Hugh Falconer.

What do you mean you’ve never heard of Hugh Falconer? The man who was instrumental in introducing tea plantations to India? The man who, in 1842, brought back five tons of fossil bones to the UK from Pakistan and India, fossils which would eventually form a core part of the Natural History Museum’s collections? The man who Stephen J. Gould claimed was the first scientist to anticipate the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium? Not ringing any bells? Poor Hugh Falconer – one of the most respected scientists of his day, but now he is largely forgotten."

Well this year, at the British Science Festival in Aberdeen, it is time to remember him. Not only did Falconer began his academic career studying Natural History at the University of Aberdeen (class of 1826), but this year is also the 150th anniversary of the first-ever scientific description of a species of dwarf elephant. Guess who described it? Yep – Hugh Falconer, and he did so at the 1862 Annual Meeting of the British Association of Advancement of Science, the forerunner of today’s British Science Festival.

As if that wasn’t coincidence enough, I am bringing dwarf elephants (or, at least, their fossilised remains) to the Festival, just like Falconer did back in 1862, to talk about their evolution and what we have – and haven’t – learnt in the last 150 years.

Falconer’s dwarf elephant fossils, which he called Elephas melitensis, were from Malta. Other dwarf elephant species (all sadly extinct) have since been discovered on Malta, Sicily, Sardinia, Crete, Cyprus and many of the small Greek islands (like Rhodes and Tilos), as well as on the Californian Channel islands and on Wrangel Island in northeast Siberia. They are an example of the phenomenon known as the ‘Island Rule’, where big animals evolve to get smaller, and small animals evolve to get bigger.

Descended from a 4m-tall, 10-ton extinct species of elephant known as the straight-tusked elephant, Falconer’s elephant would have stood just one metre tall as an adult, the size of a newborn African elephant today. Living alongside it on Malta were a giant dormouse, and a giant swan that probably topped the little elephant in height (the swan, that is - the thought of this, I must admit, scares me slightly). I’m interested in understanding how and why elephants evolved to be smaller on islands, and to help do this I am gathering evidence to find out how old the fossils are. We think most of the Mediterranean dwarf elephants lived sometime between 800,000 and 10,000 years ago, but we lack more exact dates for each species. Once I have this information, I’ll be able to place the dwarf elephant fossils into the context of the climate changes of the past, and see whether these were important to their evolution and extinction.

There’s good reason to suspect climate change might have been important, because these dwarf elephants mostly evolved during a period characterised by big climate fluctuations, with warm stages (like today) switching to ice ages, or ‘glacials’, every 100,000 years. Glacial climate, as Hugh Falconer wrote to Charles Darwin (in September 1862, in fact), was “. . . no joke: it would have made ducks and drakes of your dear pigeons and doves”, but for islands it had another significant effect: the sea level would drop as water became frozen at the poles, opening up routes to islands, and increasing their size. With the converse being true of warm stages, it is immediately apparent that the island environments, and the species living on them, could have been affected by these fluctuating climate changes. In my talk at this year’s Festival, I will be exploring this further, with some help from the audience.

There wont be much room for Hugh Falconer in my talk, but it’s his work from 150 years ago which underpins it. So if you’re in Aberdeen this September, please do spare a thought for the boy from Forres who became a man of science in Aberdeen and did so much more for science than just describe a species of dwarf elephant. File him in your mind alongside Darwin, Hooker, Huxley, Lyell and Owen – he managed to fight with them all at one time or another – and think of him each time you have a cup of tea. And if you can spare the time either side of the Festival, go to the Falconer Museum in Forres to find out more. It’s only a couple of hours up the road, after all.

Image Credit: Hugh Falconer (seated) with a very dapper William Pengelly in front of Kents Cavern in Torquay (an important fossil mammal locality), April 1858. Copyright: Forres Museum, reproduced with permission by Moray County Council.

 

 

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