African Elephants Belong To Two Different Species

African Elephants Belong To Two Different Species

The African Elephant (genus Loxodonta) is an emotive and historically loaded symbol, full of the rich backstory of the Lowveld in which it grazes. On average larger than Asian elephants, these wrinkled, moving monuments also have larger ears than their Asian counterparts, and both male and female of the species grow their own sets of impressive tusks. They are a culturally important animal, associated with numerous game parks and bushveld myths throughout the ages, and are also often the first spotting safari travelers will make (owing to their large presence in most parks).

They are also at the center of debate in the conservation field, as seen in the January 2011 confirmation that African elephants are clearly divided into two, not one, species. “Scientists from the University of York, as well as America’s Harvard Medical School and the University of Illinois used genetic analysis to prove that the African savanna elephant and the smaller African forest elephant have been largely separated for several million years.”

And their methodology is nothing short of groundbreaking – for the first time ever, scientists have been able to accurately map the genome of the extinct American mastodon, and to utilise this in a comparative study of the DNA of the Asian elephant, African forest elephant, African savanna elephant. Harvard Medical School associate professor in the Department of Genetics David Reich said, “The surprising finding is that forest and savanna elephants from Africa – which some have argued are the same species – are as distinct from each other as Asian elephants and mammoths.”

And, what’s more, the species differentiated themselves from each other almost as long ago as humans began to differentiate from chimpanzees.

If we consider the implications for conservation that this new finding could have, we see that, while as one species, the population of these creatures has been on a steady increase over the years, separated there is a need to examine conservation practices for forest elephants, specifically. These creatures, presumably owing to their smaller size, are picked off more rapidly than their larger Savanna counterparts. Evolutionarily, this size difference makes sense – preferring the smaller, canopied terrain of local woodland and forest areas, the forest elephants size never needs to increase to that of the Savanna, who spends its time in the wide open spaces. As put by assistant professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Illinois, Alfred Roca, “Now that we know the forest and savanna elephants are two very distinctive animals, the forest elephant should become a bigger priority for conservation purposes.”

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is an exhaustive inventory of “the global conservation status of plant and animal species” – and, should these new confirmations bear strongly enough on it, the previously “vulnerable” status given to these conjoined species, might now be applicable only to the Savanna elephant, while the forest could well come out as much more imperiled than before.

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2 Replies to “African Elephants Belong To Two Different Species”

  1. Biologically very interesting and, for conservation, also very important news. (Unfortunately, it gives man the “chance” to wipe out ~two~ separate species of African elephant quicker than one alone.)

  2. The first step towards change is always the rockiest – man has been targeting these creatures for years already, but with this new classification, the people who want to protect the elephant have a better argument for its numbers dwindling. It’s a tragic thought, but comforting if you consider the help it could be.