Photo in the News: Extinct Dwarf Buffalo Discovered

Dwarf buffalo illustration
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October 17, 2006—An extinct species of pygmy water buffalo that once lived in the Philippines has been discovered—thanks to people's need to do household chores.

Filipino mining engineer Michael Armas found an unusual set of fossils about 40 years ago as he was excavating a hillside on the island of Cebu (Philippines map) looking for phosphate, a naturally occurring compound used in detergents and fertilizers. He took the fossils home with him, where they sat in a jar for several years.

Eventually the bones were delivered to the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois. People often bring bones to the museum hoping they've made a rare find, museum curator Lawrence Heaney told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

"Most of the time it's pork chops from somebody's dinner, that sort of thing," Heaney said. But this time the delivery bore fruit.

The bones, the scientists found, belonged to a species of water buffalo that probably lived between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago. The tiny bovine, seen in color in this artist's conception, stood up to 2.5 feet (0.7 meter) tall and weighed about 350 pounds (160 kilograms).

The extinct creatures were similar to a modern species of small water buffalo that lives on the nearby Philippines island of Mindoro. That animal—the middle outline in the drawing—reaches about 3 feet (0.9 meter) tall. It is related to the Asian water buffalo—the topmost outline—an even larger modern species that stands about 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall and can weigh up to a ton.

"Finding this new species is a great event in the Philippines," Angel Bautista, of the National Museum of the Philippines, said in a press release. "Only a few fossils of elephants, rhinos, pig, and deer have been found here previously. We have wonderful living biodiversity, but we have known very little about our extinct species from long ago."

And the find carries special significance, the Field Museum's experts suggest, because it could offer insight into a phenomenon called island dwarfing, a process in which large species confined to isolated islands tend to grow smaller due to fewer resources.

Island dwarfing is one of the competing explanations for the famous "hobbit" human fossils found in 2003 on the Indonesian island of Flores. The fossils represent a distinct species of human that stood only 3.3 feet (1 meter) tall and lived at the same time as modern humans, some 13,000 years ago, the hobbits' discoverers say.

—Victoria Gilman

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