Dorothea Bate (1878–1951).
This fossil tooth and jaw bone was one of the first pieces of evidence that miniature elephants once lived on Cyprus. It was discovered by intrepid collector Dorothea Bate, the first female scientist employed at the Natural History Museum.
The Geology Department 1938, with Dorothea Bate front right.
Dorothea Bate was a self-taught, zealous natural historian. In 1897 she enthusiastically talked her way into a job at the Museum aged just 19. She stuck at it for nearly 50 years, paid only for the number of specimens she collected and prepared.
Aged 70, she finally received her first official appointment: Officer in Charge of Tring, our Museum in Hertfordshire.
The Black Mountains, Wales, Bate’s home territory.
Bate’s intrepid collecting expeditions began close to home in Wales. Scrambling up a craggy hillside encumbered by her long skirts, she found a cave and in it fossil mammals. Encouraged by palaeontologists at the Museum she published a report on these finds aged only 22 and set off to explore further afield.
Cyprus, where Bate searched for bone caves.
On Cyprus, Bate hunted for caves in which to look for bones, with local porters and guides. She ventured to desolate places, faced challenging living conditions, illness and the danger of violent crime.
Her bravery and perseverance were rewarded when she found fossil teeth of what looked like elephant teeth, only much, much smaller.
Pig-sized elephants still live in Africa.
They were the first evidence on Cyprus of the phenomenon of island dwarfism in elephants.
Large elephants probably swam to Cyprus from mainland Europe. They adapted to the island environment, which may have had limited food, by getting smaller.
Without predators to combat, there was also no need to stay big. Eventually, adult elephants became approximately the same size as pigs.
Crucially, Bate not only accurately identified her finds as small elephants, but asked ‘why are they small?’
Her interest in the evolutionary relationship between animals and their environments grew. She expanded her enquiries, beginning the science of archaeozoology – the study of past relationships between animals and humans.
Victoria Herridge hunting fossil bones at a site originally excavated by Dorothea Bate.
Museum scientists Adrian Lister and Victoria Herridge are studying the effects of dramatic environmental changes over the past 800,000 years on the evolution and survival of dwarf elephants.
They are using modern techniques to date fossils more accurately. This work could eventually help us understand how mammals might respond to climate change today.
Visit our elephants and find out about their ancient ancestors – the woolly mammoths – in Mammals, in the Blue Zone.