Well, what do you know? In an ‘Oxfordshire Science Festival’ hat, I’m in the thick of a book (The Dinosaurs Rediscovered) that takes me back into the age of the dinosaurs, rediscovering their history through the latest analysis of genomes, cladistics and fossils, and there on page 181 between the giant Brachiosaurus, the largest dinosaur of all time, and the iconic Stegosaurus I have discovered that pygmy elephants once roamed Malta. In an instant, I was frenziedly googling – and renowned paleontologist Michael Benton is not world expert for nothing. There were indeed mini-elephants roaming the landscape! What’s not to like?
It seems that’s there’s a cave on the edge of Birzebugga which contains the remains of animals dating back to the end of the last glacial period, animals that reached the islands from Africa when the Mediterranean sea levels were much lower than they are today and developed separately. In this cave there are bones of a number of animals including an extinct Siculo-Maltese species of pygmy elephant which stood only a metre tall. Their existence is a classic example of insular dwarfism, a process of island genetics when larger animals evolve a reduced body size because their population’s range is limited to a small environment, like Malta. And so these elephants are believed to inhabited the island until around 11000BC.
It is thought that the remains of these elephants gave rise to the legend of Cyclops because the skull, to the unknowing eye, looks like that of a giant one-eyed beast although the apparent eye-socket is actually the nasal cavity. It is also in this same cave that the earliest evidence of human settlement on Malta, some 7,400 years ago, has been found.
And while you can’t see Pygmy elephants roaming the Maltese Archipelago today, you can see a botanical Cyclops, the Acacia Cyclops which has an extraordinary series of red eyes along an elephantine pygmy foliage trunk formed by its dried pods, just ripe to represent a Just So story about Cyclops and The Elephant if only Rudyard Kipling had thought to write about Greeks and ancient elephants instead of cats and polo [The Maltese Cat].