New findings suggest that, as a result of widespread poaching, elephants have evolved to not have tusks.
In a study published Friday in the journal Science, researchers explain how the market for ivory has caused genetic changes in the mammals that make it.
The study, entitled “Ivory poaching and the rapid evolution of tusklessness in African elephants,” looks at a sad impact of humans on wildlife, but scientists say that elephants’ apparent adaptability, and currently resurgent populations, actually give their findings a serious silver lining.
During the Mozambican civil war, from 1977 to 1992, armed forces killed 90 percent of elephant populations, selling their ivory tusks to finance the conflict. Elephants that did not have tusks, however, weren’t killed, meaning they reproduced in higher numbers than the slaughtered, tusked elephants, and passed along their tuskless trait. Today, high numbers of female elephants in Mozambique’s Gorongosa national park are tuskless, a previously rare trait, and researchers have found the reason is a genetic change as a result of poaching.
“What I think this study shows is that it’s more than just numbers. The impacts that people have, we’re literally changing the anatomy of animals,” study co-author and Princeton University professor Robert Pringle told the Guardian.
He and his team were inspired to conduct the study after observing high rates of tuskless female elephants. “We realized that although there had been a fair amount written with people observing the fact that elephants were sometimes tuskless, especially in places where there had been a lot of poaching, nobody really understood why. And nor had anybody really quantified or documented the phenomenon and been able to really attribute it to a cause, as opposed to just speculating about the origins,” he explained.
The mutation suspected of causing tusklessness is fatal to male elephants, causing a large depletion of male elephants. Time has been healing for African elephants, though, and their population has more than tripled since the 1990s when they neared elimination, Pringle told the Guardian.
“So we actually expect that this syndrome will decrease in frequency in our study population, provided that the conservation picture continues to stay as positive as it has been recently,” Pringle hopefully concluded. “There’s such a blizzard of depressing news about biodiversity and humans in the environment, and I think it’s important to emphasize that there are some bright spots in that picture.”