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The lost fauna of Samos

Many kinds of fauna, including mammals which are now extinct in Greece but lived in the Samos area 6-8 million years ago, have been found during excavations over a period of nine years at Mytileniai. The «samothirio,» a giraffe with hind legs 3 meters long and an overall height of 5 meters, is one of the most significant finds made by a group of paleontologists from Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, led by Professor Giorgios Koufos. The group also discovered fossilized mastodon bones, rhinoceros skulls, and the skull and lower jaw of an insect-eating animal whose teeth have no enamel and whose descendants now live in Africa. Finds of hyenas, saber-toothed felines, at least five types of antelopes and gazelles, wild pigs, and small three-toed horses will provide valuable material for research into the geology, paleogeography and environment of the area. All these fossils are on display at the Museum of the Natural History of the Aegean, established by the Constantinos and Maria Zimalis Foundation. But few of the 150,000 visitors who have seen them know that these exhibits are just some of the fossils found in the general area. Some 30,000 fossils have been taken abroad to be incorporated into the collections of some of the most of important museums of natural history in the world. Exclusively Greek excavations began in 1993, and, apart from unearthing fossils, they have documented the terrible plunder of the most significant species. According to Professor Koufos, the fossils of Samos became known in the mid-19th century, when a group of Italian travelers collected fossils and took them back to Padua. In 1886, British paleontologist Charles Forsyth Major arrived in Samos to study its flora, and learned of the fossils. Three years later, he organized an expedition during which he collected more than 1,000 fossils which he took to Switzerland. His collection is now in the museums of Lausanne, Geneva and Bern. Over the next 30 years (1890-1920), many German and Austrian collectors came to the island to collect fossils, which were then sold to museums in Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Vienna, London and Munich. But the largest fossil collection was created in the early 20th century by Acker, the German consul on Samos. All the fossils Acker collected were sent abroad and sold to various European museums. At the same time, other Germans supplied the museums of Munster, Vienna, Budapest and Munich with specimens. The last major foreign excavation on Samos was conducted by Barnum Brown in 1921-24 for the New York Museum of Natural History. In an article, «Samos – Romantic Island of the Aegean,» Brown presents data and photographs from the excavation he conducted with the help of refugees from the Asia Minor disaster, who worked in exchange for meals. When he left Samos, Brown took 56 large wooden boxes of fossils with him. Not only did foreign excavators remove a wealth of paleontological material, but they also damaged a lot of what they left behind. The Aristotle University team found that the earlier excavators had damaged whole fossils in their attempts to remove the skulls, which could be sold for the highest prices. In the summer of 1996, the team found the site of such an excavation at Adrianos, where there were many large pieces of bone. «This means the dating of the deposits to the Late Miocene Era is in question,» says Koufos, «and there are different opinions as to when they were created, since there is not clear evidence of the exact location they were found. On the basis of the data we have so far, the fossilized animals of Samos lived 6-8 million years ago.» The Greek team is trying to explain how the fossils came to be on Samos. At the time the animals lived, they say, the Aegean Sea did not exist. In its place there was a land mass that connected what is now Greece and the Balkans to Asia Minor and the Middle East. Samos was part of this large land mass, an extensive area of savanna that was home to many animals similar to those that live today in the grasslands of Africa. The animals migrated westward from Asia into Europe, passing through these areas on the way. In the wet period that ensued, floods carried the remains of the animals to the least turbulent part of rivers and their deltas, and into seasonal lakes where rivers and streams debouched. The fossils of Samos were found in such locations. Similar finds to those on Samos have been discovered all around the Mediterranean. The fossilized fauna of Samos provide the link between corresponding fauna of Asia and Europe. Similar fossils have been found in other parts of Greece: Pikermi in Attica, Almiropotamo on Evia, the Peloponnese, the Axios basin in Macedonia, Halkidiki and Thessaly, and scientists say they show that Samos was connected to mainland Greece.