Scientists Declare New Elephant Species

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Photo © Anup Shah / Getty Images.

There's a new elephant species roaming around Africa and the surprising thing is that it's been there all along. The African forest elephant—once considered to be a forest-dwelling population of their sister species, the African elephant—is a separate species in its own right. This means that instead of just two species of elephants living today there are now three—Asian elephants, African savanna elephants and African forest elephants.

A team of scientists from Harvard Medical School, the University of Illinois, and the University of York in the United Kingdom analyzed DNA from Asian elephants, African elephants (savanna and forest) and two extinct species, the mastodon and woolly mammoth. By comparing the genetic make-up of these species, the scientists were able to determine that African forest elephants diverged from other African elephants about the same time Asian elephants split off from woolly mammoths. To emphasize how long ago that split occurred, it can be compared to our own evolutionary history:

"The split between African savanna and forest elephants is almost as old as the split between humans and chimpanzees," said Professor Michi Hofreiter of the Department of Biology at York.

The research represents the first time nuclear DNA from the extinct mastodon has been sequenced. It's also the first time DNA from the living elephants has been compared side-by-side to that of their closest kin, the mammoths and mastodons.

The finding that African elephants are two separate species carries with it implications for conservation efforts in the region. Instead of managing all African elephants as if they were one species, they now must be studied and protected in different ways to ensure their unique habitat and biological requirements are met.

References

Rohland N, Reich D, Mallick S, Meyer M, Green RE, Georgiadis NJ, et al. (2010) Genomic DNA Sequences from Mastodon and Woolly Mammoth Reveal Deep Speciation of Forest and Savanna Elephants. PLoS Biol 8(12): e1000564. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000564

University of Illinois College of Agriculture, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences (2010) Seeing double: Africa's Two Elephant Species. Eurekalert: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2010-12/uoic-sda121610.php​