Scientists have divided elephants into two distinct species: the African and Asian elephant. But, for nearly a decade, suspicions have persisted that the forest and savannah elephant are two separate species, and not two populations of a single species of African elephant. New research has confirmed those suspicions.
Planet Ark reported this week on a study conducted by Harvard, the University of Illinois, and the University of New York in Britain showing that the smaller forest elephant is a distinct cousin to the much larger savannah elephant. Published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Biology the study confirms that instead of different populations or subspecies, the savannah and forest elephants are only distantly related, separated by between 2.5 and 7 million years – nearly as long ago as humans diverged from chimpanzees.
In terms of determining species, size doesn’t necessarily matter. Many scientists still believed the two elephant populations comprised a single species in part because they mated and had offspring. In fact, genetic sequencing revealed that the forest elephant was as far removed from its larger cousin as the Asian elephant is from the woolly mammoth.
Michi Hofreiter, an expert in ancient DNA, echoed the sentiment of his colleagues saying the results of the research “amazed us all.”
“The divergence of the two species took place around the time of the divergence of the Asian elephant and woolly mammoths,” Hofreiter said. “The split between African savanna and forest elephants is almost as old as the split between humans and chimpanzees.”
On of the more immediate and practical consequences of the discovery is rethinking conservation plans for the savannah and forest elephant as two separate species.
“For the last 50 years, all African elephants have been treated as the same species,” said Alfred Roca from the University of Illinois and who worked on the study. “In fact, they are so different you really have to come up with a different conservation plan for each of the two”
Image credit: Martin Teviotdale, courtesy freestock photo