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Study Finds Two Species of African Elephants

A misconception about African elephants can be put to rest.

Researchers from the University of Illinois, Harvard University, and the University of York discovered that there are actually two species of African elephants, rather than one. The DNA of African elephants was compared with the extinct American mastodon and wooly mammoth.

"Experimentally, we had a major challenge to extract DNA sequences from two fossils - mammoths and mastodons - and line them up with DNA from modern elephants over hundreds of sections of the genome," said research scientist Nadin Rohland of the Department of Genetics at the Harvard Medical School.

African forest elephants are smaller, but have a greater genetic diversity compared to African savanna elephants, according to University of Illinois animal sciences professor Alfred Roca. Roca said the African forest elephants make up about one tenth of the country's elephant population. He said these mammals could face extinction unless there is more of a concentration dedicated to preserving their existence.

"In the forest of Central Africa and certainly in the forest of West Africa, the protection is limited in some countries, and in many cases you have a lot of organized gangs of poachers that are coming in," Roca said. "Really the focus has to be on protecting the forest elephant."

Roca said the evolutionary differences between the mammals are about as old as the split between humans and chimpanzees. He added that it is likely climate change in Africa five million years ago led to their creation.

This research was funded by the Max Planck Society and by a Burroughs Wellcome Career Development Award in Biomedical Science.

(Photo courtesy of Mark Turner/flickr)

Categories: Environment, Science