Elephant anatomy is changing… and humans are to blame

New research, from Mozambique, has revealed that ivory poaching led to the evolution of tuskless elephants.

Decades of poaching for ivory is believed to have contributed to an increase in the number of helpless elephants, meaning humans are essentially “change the anatomy” of a wild species.

Tuskless elephants were originally studied as a rare genetic mutation. However, the defect has become very common among groups of African elephants.

Image: PBS News Hour

The study, published in the journal Science reveals that the change follows a period of massive tusk poaching. Researchers focused on why female elephants in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park were born without tusks.

The study found that the animals were affected by genetic engineering – ultimately the result of ivory poaching.

During the Mozambican Civil War (1977-1992), elephants with tusks were at high risk of poaching. An astonishing 90 percent of the elephant population was killed for their ivory to fund the conflict of war.

Tuskless elephants were left alone and therefore increased the likelihood of offspring being born tuskless. The impact of this is still evident generations later, with the 700 elephants in the national park showing the effects.

Robert Pringle, scientist and leader at Princeton University, was at the forefront of the groundbreaking study of evolution.

“What I think this study shows is that it’s not just about the numbers. The impacts that people have, we literally change the anatomy of animals.

Gorongosa National Park has always interested researchers with the suspicion that poaching has led to these anomalies.

The research team was intrigued by the lack of elephants born without tusks. Although this is a known phenomenon, no one had ever researched the cause.

It had long been suspected that the mutation had a genetic cause and was most likely sex-linked.

This has been proven through the use of genome sequencing. Further study revealed that a pair of candidate genes on the X chromosomes, including one related to tooth development.

The mutation in one or more of the genes ultimately protects female elephants from poaching. About half of male elephants born to tuskless mothers will share the anomaly.

It has led to a notable decrease in males in herds affected by poaching. However, this is reversible over time.

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