CHICAGO - Nearly 50 years after a mining prospector found some mysterious fossilized bones on a remote Philippine mountain, they have been identified in Chicago as an extinct species of dwarf water buffalo, apparently shrunken in size after their much larger ancestors were left isolated on a small island.
The bones of the animal, until now unknown to science, are an almost perfect copy in miniature of bones from the huge water buffalo that remain the stalwart beasts of burden for farmers throughout Asia. An adult water buffalo can stand 6 feet high at the shoulder and weigh well over 2,000 pounds, but the newly identified buffalo was only about 2 1/2 feet high and about 350 pounds.
The little buffalo is a classic example of natural selection at work, say the four scientists who have studied the pint-sized remains, naming it Bubalus cebuensis in a scientific article published Tuesday in the Journal of Mammalogy.
Among them is Larry Heaney, the Field Museum's curator of mammals and a world authority on the biological phenomenon called "island dwarfism."
One theory behind that phenomenon attributes size reduction to limited food supplies, Heaney said. On an island, the larger animals of a species would have trouble finding sufficient nourishment to keep their energy up, while smaller individuals would have an easier time. Thus the smaller individuals would be more successful breeders, and genes favoring smaller stature would determine future generations.