A Third Species Of Elephant Has Been Discovered (Right In Front Of Us)

Forests elephants in the Mbeli River of Congo. Credit: Thomas Breuer/ Wikipedia

As elephants continue to be hunted down and have their population experience sharp declines, it becomes increasingly important to build a better understanding of the extant species. Previously, it was considered that there were only two extant species of elephants, the Asian elephant, and the African elephant. Recent studies have begun to show that there is a third species.

Elephants are the largest land mammal on Earth currently and they are revered by many cultures for vanity, practical, and spiritual purposes. Despite our reverence for these animals, we have put them at risk.

They are continuously under threat from poachers to supply the ivory trade. They also face habitat loss as human populations continue to grow and expand into these ecosystems. This expansion also causes conflict between the two species because they compete over the space and humans generally wins.

To stem the population decrease, we have implemented many conservation programs that aim to reduce the need for an ivory trade as well as protect the elephants from the black market. Many of these programs start with education to alert the populous of the trouble elephants are in as well as dispel misconceptions and superstitions about their ivory.

One aspect of conservation is recognizing the different elephant species so that conservation efforts can be aimed at these species separately to accommodate their different needs. This would create a more productive conservation experience compared to viewing them as a singular unit.

Confirming The Existence Of African Forest Elephants

Elephants are the largest land mammal on Earth currently and they are revered by many cultures for vanity, practical, and spiritual purposes. Despite our reverence for these animals, we have put them at risk.

Previously, researchers considered the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) to be a single species that inhabited sub-Saharan Africa and the rainforests of Central and West Africa.

However, there is existing evidence to suggests that the African elephant is two separate species: L. africana (savanna elephant) and L. cyclotis (forest elephant). In 2010, researchers at Harvard, the University of Illinois and the University of York in Britain used gene sequencing tools to analyze the African elephants in the forests and savanna.

The researchers found that the two species were more like cousins that were mostly separated for 2 million to 7 million years. That was enough time apart to ensure that they form two species. Comparing the genes of these two species to other extinct species, the researchers found that the difference between the extinct species and the extant ones were similar to the difference between the two African species, further indicating their differences.

Unfortunately, many researchers still resisted this idea that they were two species because they appeared to mate and produce offsprings. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species still considers the African elephants to be a single species. They admit that there is emerging evidence for there to be two species, but are slow in accepting it.

In 2017, researchers found that the African forest elephant was closely related to an extinct species of elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus). The researchers analyzed the fossils using a new genetic analysis and found that the extinct species shared a common ancestor with the African forest elephant about 1.5 to 3.5 million years ago. This is in stark contrast to the common ancestor of the African forest and savanna elephants, which was about 2 to 7 million years ago.

An updated family tree of elephants and mammoths as they stemmed from a common ancestor. The red arrows represent gene flow between closely related species. Only E. maximus (Asian elephant) and the African elephants remain today. Credit: Palkopoulou et al./ PNAS

This further added support to the differences between the African elephants. Recently, the researchers who published the 2017 article combined their existing data with new data to further understand the separation between the African species.

The researchers looked at the 14 genetic sequences from both extant species (6) and extinct species (8). Using the previous data on the relationship between L. cyclotis and P. antiquus along with this new data showed that crossbreeding was occurring to facilitate gene flow between certain species.

There were large levels of gene flow between the African forest elephant and the P. antiquus and smaller levels of gene flow between the Asian elephant and P. antiquus. There was no gene flow between the African forest and savanna elephants.

According to the researchers, the two African species were kept separated for about 500,000 years because of climate and environmental conditions that created a restricted barrier between the two. This aided in the separation of the two species on a genetic level.

Beyond Genetic Differences

Beyond the genetic factors that indicate that the African species exists as two separate species, there are physical and biological factors that support the difference between the two species.

Overall, forest elephants are smaller and darker than the savanna ones. Male African forest elephants can reach up to 8.2 ft in height while the savanna elephants can be as tall as 13.1 ft. Besides being taller, the savanna elephants are also larger and heavier.

Elephants use their wrinkled skin to increase the surface area that heat can dissipate from, cooling them off. Forest elephants usually have more wrinkles compared to the savanna elephants because their environment is hotter.

Skulls of African savanna elephant(left) and African forest elephant(right) show a noticeable difference between the two species.

One of the major differences between the forest and savanna elephants is their reproduction rates. Researchers found that the forest elephants have extremely low birth rates. Since 2002, the forest elephants have lost over 65% of their population. This means that their slow birth rates will make recovery a very slow process that may not be able to combat the population decline.

The savanna elephant is capable of recovering relatively faster than the forest elephant. This difference showcases one of the important reasons that conservation efforts must be made for the two species separately because they respond differently to being poached and losing their habitats.

Places like the IUCN, the African Wildlife Foundation, and the World Wildlife Fund must follow the evidence and confirm the existence of the forest elephant as a separate species so that they can begin to better track the population, poaching occurrences, and other factors needed to build better and more accurate conservation plans for this species.

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