We all know the untimely fate of the Dodo when human settlers came to its lonely Mauritius island during the 16th and 17th centuries. Now it has been revealed that a tiny deer from Panama had a similar turn of misfortune, thousands of years before.
A new study by archeologists from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has found that humans hunted a dwarf deer into extinction over 2,000 years ago.
The island of Pedro González, found among the Pearl Islands, was cut off from mainland Panama around 8,500 years ago as the polar ice caps melted in the final days of the Ice Age. With this sudden isolation, the deers were forced to become smaller due to increased competition for limited food resources on the 14-hectare (35-acre) island. Judging by the remains of their bones, the deer likely weighed around 10 kilograms (22 pounds), or about the same weight as a small dog.
After the deers accommodated for this slight environmental pressure over the course of thousands of years, all was well for the tiny species. Then came the humans. Around 6,200 years ago, settlers arrived by sea and began farming maize, fishing, gathering shellfish and fruits, and hunting the island's land creatures. Among their diet of snakes, iguanas, and opossums, were also the deer.
Bones of the dwarf deer show signs of butchering. Image credit: Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Archeologists found 2,500 deer bone fragments from 22 separate individuals in a 4-meter-deep (13-foot-deep) trash pit near the coast. On some of these bones, the researchers came across specific markings that show signs that the limbs had been butchered and sliced from the bone. Others showed indications that the bones had been bitten by human teeth and even smashed up to get to the nutritious marrow inside.
Analyzing the different layers of bone debris in the trash pit became a very important clue for the archeologists. The number of deer bones decreased in the top layer of the trash pit and tended to only include the bones of young deer, suggesting they were becoming more and more scarce.
The researchers from the Smithsonian found no deer bones in layers after 2,300 years ago, suggesting the species had become extinct by that time.
The team now hope to follow up on this study by conducting DNA tests on the bone fragments to get a closer look at which clade of deer these pocket-sized species originated from. They also hope that the loss of the Pedro González dwarf deer inspires conservation of deer populations still found on the neighboring islands by showing just how vulnerable these small mammals can be.
Main image credit: Smithsonian's National Zoo/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)