The Mystery of the Cyprus Dwarf Hippopotamus

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The ancestors of the Cyprus dwarf hippopotamus arrived on the island around 100,000 years ago, likely by sea—there is no evidence of a land bridge. Island populations are susceptible to insular dwarfism, which occurs when a species reproduces within a small population over many generations; the animals evolved to the size of a grown pig and adapted to the mountainous terrain by walking on their toes. About 10,000 years ago, the dwarf hippos became extinct—and scientists disagree as to why. Climate change is one explanation: conditions became warmer and drier at that time, leading to many extinctions. But the excavation of a pit in Akrotiri suggests the possibility of a human contribution, too. The top layer of the pit contains burned shells and bones along with stone scraping tools, all connoting human presence. Beneath it rests a deposit of bones from hundreds of dwarf hippos with additional artefacts. Radiocarbon tests date the shells, bones, and tools of both layers at 10,000 years old—suggesting that humans and dwarf hippos lived contemporaneously in Cyprus. Did humans hunt the hippos into extinction? Some contest this conclusion, noting that the hippo bones show no signs of butchering. Others point out that the bones are not connected, as they would be in live animals, and cannot fathom a natural explanation for the extensive deposit of bones. This month in Ayia Napa, scientists gathered to open a new centre for the study of the dwarf hippo and its demise. The mystery continues to be investigated.

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