Paleontologists have found a million-year-old hippo tooth at the site of Westbury Cave in Somerset, England. This fossil constitutes the earliest bona fide record of Hippopotamus in the United Kingdom.
The fossilized upper molar tooth from Westbury Cave belongs to Hippopotamus antiquus, an extinct species of hippo that lived in Europe during a particularly warm period between 2 and 1 million years ago.
The species was much larger than the modern African hippo, weighing around 3 tons, and was even more reliant on aquatic habitats than its living relative.
“It was very exciting to come across a hippo tooth during our recent excavations at Westbury Cave,” said Dr. Neil Adams, a paleontologist in the Centre for Palaeobiology Research at the University of Leicester and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
“It is not only the first record of hippo from the site, but also the first known hippo fossil from any site in Britain older than 750,000 years.”
“Erosion caused by the coming and going of ice sheets, as well as the gradual uplift of the land, has removed large parts of the deposits of this age in Britain.”
“Our comparisons with sites across Europe show that Westbury Cave is an important exception and the new hippo dates to a previously unrecognized warm period in the British fossil record.”
Paleontologists know remarkably little about the fauna, flora and environments in Britain between about 1.8 and 0.8 million years ago, a key period when early humans were beginning to occupy Europe.
But the new research is helping to fill in this gap. It shows that during this interval there were periods warm and wet enough to allow hippos to migrate all the way from the Mediterranean to southern England.
“Hippos are not only fabulous animals to find but they also reveal evidence about past climates,” said Professor Danielle Schreve, a paleontologist at Royal Holloway.
“Many megafaunal species (those over a ton in weight) are quite broadly tolerant of temperature fluctuations but in contrast, we know modern hippos cannot cope with seasonally frozen water bodies.”
“Our research has demonstrated that in the fossil record, hippos are only found in Britain during periods of climatic warmth, when summer temperatures were a little warmer than today but most importantly, winter temperatures were above freezing.”
The study was published in the Journal of Quaternary Science.
Neil F. Adams et al. An Early Pleistocene hippopotamus from Westbury Cave, Somerset, England: support for a previously unrecognized temperate interval in the British Quaternary record. Journal of Quaternary Science, published online October 4, 2021; doi: 10.1002/jqs.3375