Prehistoric and Historic Artificial Dispersal of Lagomorphs on the Mediterranean Islands

  • Marco Masseti
  • Anna M. De Marinis

The current Mediterranean fauna is a result of the interactions of diverse factors, primarily the multiple biogeographical origin of the species, Quaternary climatic changes (which produced a repeated turnover of biota) and Late Pleistocene-Holocene human-induced habitat modifications, including hunting and Holocene introductions of a variety of allochthonous continental taxa (Masseti 1998, 2002). Apart from sporadic cases, the complete absence of endemic species from the extant mammalian fauna of the Mediterranean islands is quite surprising. In the majority of the cases, in fact, the existing populations of non-flying terrestrial mammals display undoubtedly a homogeneous composition of elements, predominantly revealing a continental origin (Alcover 1980; Sanders and Reumer 1984; Vigne 1992, 1993; Blondel and Vigne 1993; Masseti 1993, 1998). To assess the range of the original insular distribution of the different species in the Mediterranean region, earlier chronologies prior to the Neolithisation should be considered, after which improved human seafaring skills and the established commercial networks between countries enabled the artificial exportation even of wild animals, together with those already involved in the process of domestication (Masseti 1998; Lorenzini et al. 2002). Recent archaeological investigation indicates that the first transfers of allochthonous faunal elements were carried out subsequent to early Neolithic times, as documented by the discovery of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic site of Shillourokambos on the island of Cyprus (end of the 9th–8th millennium B.C.) (Guilaine et al. 1996, 2000; Cucchi et al. 2002; Vigne et al. 2003). It seems that from these times on, man began to bring with him the animals he needed as economic supplies for the colonisation of new geographical areas. One of the faunal categories much exploited in this sense is represented by the Lagomorph family, originally represented among the Late Quaternary endemic faunal horizons of the Mediterranean islands only by one species, the ochotonid Prolagus sardus (Sardinian pika) (Wagner 1829), native and exclusive of the Upper Pleistocene-Holocene of Corsica and Sardinia. In the light of archaeozoological evidence, this endemic lagomorph survived on the two islands up to very recent times, probably coinciding with the Iron Age (Delussu 2000; Wilkens and Delussu 2003), or even up to Roman times (cf. Vigne and Valladas 1996; Vigne 1997). According to the Greek historian Polybius (3rd–2nd century B.C.), the island of Corsica of his time was not characterized by the occurrence of any species of hare, but was instead inhabited by this Sardinian pika, locally called the kyniklos. Polybius observed that “… when seen from a distance [it] looks like a small hare, but when captured it differs much from a hare both in appearance and taste. It lives for the most part under the ground” (The Histories, XII: 3.8–4.6 in Paton 1925). However, evidence shows that the extant lagomorphs of the Mediterranean islands exhibit an apparently undifferentiated continental origin. The occurrence of these continental forms on all the islands seems to be linked essentially to the introduction by man during the Holocene.


European Rabbit Mediterranean Island European Hare Mountain Hare Aegean Island 
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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marco Masseti
    • 1
  • Anna M. De Marinis
    • 2
  1. 1.Dipartimento di Biologia Animale e GeneticaUniversità di FirenzeFlorenceItaly
  2. 2.Istituto Nazionale per la Fauna SelvaticaOzzano dell'Emilia (BO)Italy

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