by Warren Bugeja and John J Borg
Size matters. Rewind in time to Pleistocene Malta, and a swan, emboldened by its stature, could intimidate an elephant.
Given Malta’s topography, its dearth of forests, and intense urban density, it is hard to imagine that herds of elephants and hippopotami once roamed these tiny islands. Or that giant swans chased away pigmy elephants encroaching upon their territory. Palaeoloxodon falconeri, the Maltese Dwarf Elephant, was no higher than 90cm and the swans in question were twice as large as that.
In the dawn of prehistory, the valleys of the Maltese Islands echoed with the thump of three species of elephant feet. Falconeri was the smallest of the three, including , Palaeoloxodon mnaidriensis named after the Neolithic site and Palaeoloxodon antiqus.
Archaeologist and University Rector Annetto Caruana discovered a fragment of a lower jaw of Palaeoloxodon falconeri with a molar in-situ in 1857 from the ta’ Kandja Fissure. The specimen was set on a wooden display board for public viewing inside the Gabinetto delle Curiosita’ located within the public library in Valletta. Unfortunately, for many years this specimen and other bone material collected by the British Surgeon Andrew Leith Adams and Caruana were presumed lost, probably during the Second World War.
However, during a cleaning exercise undertaken in the lower rooms of the National Museum for Natural History, located at Vilhena Palace in Mdina, Senior Curator John J. Borg stumbled upon a cardboard box containing the missing collection. Whilst overseeing the mandible’s restoration process, the labels identifying the specimen and the names of Caruana and Adams came to light. John J. Borg finally produced his findings in an article about the collection in Heritage Malta’s in-house research bulletin,’ Tesserae’.
The falconeri fragment was Borg’s specimen of choice when asked to select a favourite artefact within the National Collection for Heritage Malta’s HMTV series ‘Treasure To Meet You.’ “This fossil and many others serve not only as a stark reminder of the flora and fauna, now extinct but also the present loss of our biodiversity,” he states. “It brings home the fact that climate change is real.” It may very well be a cyclical phenomenon, occurring several times in the past and resulting in the extinction of many species, “However, nowadays, through our actions we are accelerating these changes to the detriment not only of our flora and fauna – which have no time to adapt to these transitions – but also to ourselves,” he warns.
‘Treasure to Meet You’ is uploaded to Heritage Malta’s Facebook page every fortnight at 19:00. The intimate series consists of short features in both English and Maltese versions. Each week, viewers get to meet one of our dedicated curators, who were asked to select an artefact or feature from the National Collection to which they are particularly attached.
Treasure to Meet You Episode 7
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