Extinct Giant Elephant Genetics Prove There Are Actually Two Living African Species

African forest elephants have long been thought of as seperate from bush elephants, but some conservation agencies have not recognized them. Sergey Uryadnikov/Shutterstock

Josh Davis 07 Jun 2017, 16:03

An extinct species of giant elephant that used to roam across much of Europe and Asia was more closely related to modern African forest elephants than forest elephants are to modern African bush elephants. This new finding adds support to the argument that the two modern types of elephants living in Africa today are actually two separate species.

The straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) was a behemoth of ancient times. Reaching up to 4 meters (13 feet) tall at the shoulder and weighing in at around 15 tonnes (16.5 tons), the giants are thought to have lived between 1.5 million and 100,000 years ago. But it has long been thought that as the Eurasian mammoth was more closely related to the Asian elephant, the Eurasian straight-tusked beast would have been, too.

But a new genetic analysis of fossils from the extinct species compared with the living found that the straight-tusked elephants last shared a common ancestor with the forest variety some 1.5 to 3.5 million years ago, while the forest elephant's last common ancestor with the bush elephant was at least 3.9 to 7 million years ago.  

The straight-tusked elephant is actually more closely related to the forest elephant, rather than the Asian. Asier Larramendi Eskorza and Julie McMahon

"We’ve had really good genetic evidence since the year 2001 that forest and savannah elephants in Africa are two different species, but it’s been very difficult to convince conservation agencies that that’s the case,” said Alfred Roca, co-author of the study in eLife. “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.”

This latest study adds yet more weight to the argument that the African forest elephant is a separate and distinct species compared to the larger African bush elephant. Scientific evidence has, for a quite a while now, backed up the fact that the morphology of the two elephants living on the continent looks so different. Yet despite all this evidence, conservation agencies have been slow on the uptake.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, for example, still lists the two animals as a single species. As the authority on the status of how threatened the world’s animals are, the fact that they are still considered as one is worryingly damaging for the smaller forest dwelling creatures.

While the eastern and southern populations of African bush elephants are doing well, and even on the rise, the central and western species of forest elephant are being decimated. But as they are all considered the same species, the Red List simply lists the African elephant as “vulnerable”, a move that is potentially pushing the forest elephants ever closer to extinction.

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