Now that the last elephants on earth are nearing extinction one may ask: Were there ever any elephants living in Greece? If there were, why and when did they become extinct?
During the last 14 million years various Proboscidea lived in Greece leaving behind incontrovertable evidence of their existence in the form of numerous fossils in more than 70 localities. The exhibition at 'Megalo Chorio" on Tilos island presents the last elephants of Europe. Fossils of the earlisest known Proboscidea have been found in Eocene layers in N.E. Africa. During the course of the time they have spread throughout Africa, Europe, Asia and Africa. In the Quaternary period they made their way to some of the islands in the Mediterranean and to the islands off the coasts of Indonesia. They were never able to reach Australia.
In the Greek islands Proboscidea fossils have been found in the Middle Miocene to the Pleistocene layers (c. 14 million to c. 10000 years ago). During the Quaternary period there were mammals living on the Aegean islands which were morphologically slightly different from their parent species on the mainland. Such species are known as endemic fauna. When large mammals (elephants, hippos and deer) become isolated for a long time on an island they usually evolve in dwarf forms. Converselyl, when micromammals (mice for example) become isolated they evolve to large micromammals. These size modifications are due to the pecularities of the island environment - insufficient food, the impossibility of exchanging genetic material, the absence of large carnivores, the coverage of the island with volcanic material, etc.
How did these mammals migrate to the islands?
Proboscidea migrated to the islands over a land bridge or by swimming from mainland. It is now generally accepted that the occurence on an island of certain fossil endemic species only means that the parent species reached the island by swimming. When migration occurs over a land bridge, the island fauna does not differ significantly from the fauna on the nearby mainland. The same is true when the sea corridor is very narrow and the animals can migrate easily in both directions. Micromammals can migrate to an island on a drifting tree trunk. Eustatic sea level fluctuations played a significant role in the migration of the elephants to the islands. When sea level was very low, an island became an extention of the mainland or the sea corridor became very narrow. On the other hand, when sea level was high, the sea corridor widened and the area of the island decreased.
Palaeontological excavations at Charkadio cave on the island of Tilos by the Museum of Geology and Palaentology of Athens University.
In November 1971 the Professor of Geology and Paleontology at Athens University Dr. N. Symeonidis visited the island of Tilos to study human remains that were buried in the beach rocks of Aghios Antonios bay in historical time. In one of the many caves of the island he collected the first lamelae from a dwarf elephant molar. The excavations more than 8 meters deep in the sediment, have brought to light more than 15.000 bones belonging to more than 40 elephants. Their height varied from 120 to 150 cm's. They belong to Palaeloxodon antiquus falconeri BUSK. In deeper layers in the cave have been found bones from deer that became extinct long before the arrival of the elephants on the island. The excavations also revealed turtle bones, micromammals, birds, and fragments of tusks that have been used as tools which suggest the simultaneous occurence of men and elephants on the island. Charkadiio cave on the island of Tilos is the first on the world list in respect of material abundance. In the future the deeper layers and the lateral cave - rooms will be excavated. Many secrets are still hidden in this natural archive. The sediment included volcanic ash from different volcanoes, phosphatic concretions from fossilized bones, a calcitic crust dated c. 45.000 BP and layers of fallen stones. Deer lived on Tilos c. 140.000 BP. Dwarf elephants lived during the last 50.000 years and became extinct 4000-3000 years ago. The environmental factors that affected the evolution and extinction of the deer and the elephants range from volcanic activity and the variations of the island area due to the fluctuation of the sea level during Pleistocene, to the possible influence of man, especially in the case of the elephant. The exhibition at Megalo Chorio was prepared by the Museum of Palaentolgoy and Geology of Athens University and was financed by the Ministry of Aegean Sea.