The discovery of the fossilised remains of an enormous extinct rabbit on the island of Menorca, has proven of great excitement to old fossils like me living in the Baleares.
The creature named Menorcan King of Rabbits (Nuralagus rex) by local palaeontologists weighed at least 12 kilos and was ten times the size of its extinct mainland cousin and six times bigger than the living European rabbit. The Sumo wrestler of the rabbit world lived alongside creatures of similar exaggerated proportions such as the giant dormouse, tortoise and bat.
Dr Josep Quintana of the Catalan Institute of Palaeontology who has reported his findings in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology also discovered the very first bone of the extinct rabbit. He believes the species lived 3-5 million years ago and could be the earliest known example of Island Rule in mammals, meaning that certain groups of larger mammals living on islands became smaller such as Myotragus, the extinct mouse-goat unique to the Baleares, while smaller creatures became larger. The term insular dwarfism has also been used to describe those creatures such as elephants, sloths and even dinosaurs that diminished in size when the population gene pool was limited to an island environment. In the case of super bunny and other extinct island species that became enlarged, recent research at Imperial College London points to other factors beyond the simple Island Rule. Its researchers believe that the physical environment, availability of prey and presence of predators dictated whether a species tended towards dwarfism or gigantism, rather than purely arising from the general course of evolution.
When researching my book about Myotragus, I spent time talking to experts on island dwarfism and gigantism at the Natural History Museum in London, and also on Majorca and in Holland, and studied numerous fossilised remains. In my excellent local natural history museum in Soller there are thousands of bones of Myotragus still being catalogued as well as those of huge rodents such as the giant dormouse. It somehow gives one a completely different understanding of the evolution of the Balearic islands. How thrilling it must have been for Dorothea Bate, the great British fossil hunter, to have unearthed the first example of Myotragus in a sea cave back in 1909 and to have brought her spoils back to the Natural History Museum in London to be identified.
It transpires that the Menorcan king of bunnies was sadly not as agile as its living descendents and had much smaller ears and eyes and a short, stiff spine that ruled out hopping and made it rather cumbersome and clumsy. It might have been the undisputed king, but in truth it probably wasn’t a very happy bunny.
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