Our goals here are to: (1) assess the generality of one aspect of the island rule the progressive trend towards decrease in size in larger species for fossil carnivores on islands; (2) offer causal explanations for this pattern and deviations from it as far as fossil carnivores are concerned; and (3) estimate the speed of this trend.


Oceanic and oceanic-like islands world-wide.


Body size estimates of fossil insular carnivores and of their phylogenetically closest mainland relative were obtained from our own data and the published literature. Our dataset consisted of 18 species from nine islands world-wide. These data were used to test whether the body size of fossil insular carnivores varies as a function of body size of the mainland species in combination with characteristics of the island ecosystem.


Dwarfism was observed in two canid species. Moderate decrease in body mass was observed in one hyena species. Gigantism was observed in one otter species. Moderate body mass increase was observed in two otter species, one galictine mustelid and perhaps one canid. Negligible or no change in body mass at all was observed in five otter species, three galictine mustelids and one genet. Size changes in teeth do not lag behind in comparison to skeletal elements in the dwarfed canids. The evolutionary speed of dwarfism in a canid lineage is low.

Main conclusions

Size change in fossil terrestrial insular carnivores was constrained by certain ecological conditions, especially the availability of prey of appropriate body size. When such alternative prey was not available, the carnivores retained their mainland size. The impact of competitive carnivores seems negligible. The case of (semi-)aquatic carnivores is much less clear. The species that maintained their ancestral body mass may have changed their diet, as is evidenced by their dentition. Among the otters, one case of significant size increase was observed, perhaps best explained as being due to it entering the niche of an obligate aquatic otter. Dwarfism was not observed in otters. The island rule seems to apply to fossil carnivores, but with exceptions. The dependency of the island rule on resource availability is emphasized by the present study.