Conservation, Nature, Science

Genetic Study of Elephants Reveals Information Vital to Conservation

New research reveals beyond a shadow of a doubt that African forest elephants and African savanna elephants are two distinct species.
New research reveals beyond a shadow of a doubt that African forest elephants and African savanna elephants are two distinct species. Photo: Shutterstock

Starting 1.5 million years ago, a species of giant elephant roamed across Eurasia until it went extinct about 100,000 years ago.

That species, Palaeoloxodon antiquus, was thought to be most closely related to the Asian elephant. But new research says otherwise.

Researchers at the University of Illinois recently published a paper on the genetic evidence that led to this conclusion.

Since the early 2000s, scientists have been aware that there are two species of African elephants—the African forest elephant and the African savanna elephant. It was thought that the two species of African elephants were more closely related to one another than they were to the two species of Asian elephants. They also thought that P. antiquus was more closely related to Asian elephants than to African elephants.

Despite the scientific evidence, it has been difficult to convince conservation organizations that there are two distinct species of African elephants, which has led to conservation efforts that may not be as effective for one or the other species.

But when scientists looked at two lines of evidence from African and Asian elephants—wooly mammoths and P. antiquus—they analyzed mitochondrial DNA, passed down by mothers only, and nuclear DNA, which is a blend of genes from both parents.

The analysis revealed a surprise: not only was P. antiquus more closely related to African elephants than Asian ones, it was more closely related to the African forest elephant than to the African savanna elephant. A common ancestor of P. antiquus and the African forest elephant lived sometime between 1.5 million and 3.5 million years ago, while their closest shared ancestor with the African savanna elephant lived between 3.9 and 7 million years ago.

“With the new genetic evidence from Palaeoloxodon, it becomes almost impossible to argue that the elephants now living in Africa belong to a single species,” said Professor Alfred Roca, a co-author of the study.

How does this help conservation efforts?

First of all, by differentiating between the two species, conservation plans can be developed that preserve and hopefully boost both species’ populations. Secondly, it allows researchers to see the truth about elephant populations in Africa.

“More than two-thirds of the remaining forest elephants in Africa have been killed over the last 15 years or so,” Roca said. “Forest elephants are among the most endangered elephant populations on the planet.”

Roca added that since some conservation agencies don’t see African forest elephants as a different species, their conservation needs have been neglected.

Hopefully, with these new findings, that will no longer be the case.

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