Desert-Dwelling Elephants Have A Unique Culture But Common Genetics

A Namibian desert-dwelling elephant. Genetically the same, culturally different from other African elephants. Andrew Schaefer

Elephants of the Namibian desert are genetically the same as their savannah equivalents, but they have a different cultural heritage, according to a paper in Ecology and Evolution, making them as important to preserve as if they were a distinct species.

The heat and limited water of the deserts of Namibia pose challenges for all their inhabitants, leading to some impressive innovations, such as beetles that collect the fog for drinking water. Elephants are no exception, but their adaptations have been behavioral rather than genetic.

"The ability of species such as elephants to learn and change their behavior means that genetic changes are not critical for them to adapt to a new environment," said senior author Professor Alfred Roca of the University of Illinois in a statement. "The behavioral changes can allow species to expand their range to novel marginal habitats that differ sharply from the core habitat."

To keep cool, the desert elephants wet sand, either by urinating on it or using water they carry around in their mouths, before throwing it over themselves. This is uncommon in cooler environments with more accessible water.

These elephants have apparently developed the capacity to recognize the sounds of thunderstorms hundreds of kilometers away, and apply their famously long memories to the location of water resources that might survive droughts. Some of these resources only exist because the elephants dug out larger holes for water to pool in.

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