Elephants evolve without tusks to evade poachers

Ruth Langsford meets elephants at Woburn Safari Park

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A study of African elephants in Mozambique found that a third of females now lack the protruding teeth and are passing this trait on to their calves. Male elephants in the country have smaller tusks than usual. Both trends could help them survive because poachers tend to target elephants with the biggest and therefore the most valuable teeth.

The study in the journal Science focused on the Gorongosa National Park, which used to have 2,500 elephants. During the 1977-92 Mozambican Civil War, 90 percent of them were lost because both sides used ivory to fund their military operations.

The research, led by Shane Campbell-Staton of America’s Princeton University, said: “Intense poaching resulted in an increase in the frequency of complete tusklessness in female elephants from the region.”

Male elephants in the park still tend to have tusks, which the researchers, including Dominique Gonçalves from Kent University, believe points to a sex-linked genetic origin for the trend.

In an analysis of the paper, Chris Darimont and Fanie Pelletier wrote: “Campbell-Staton et al’s elegant approach is among the rare studies that document a genetic response to harvest selection, informing debate about the potential for selective harvests to lead to evolutionary responses.”

Similar developments have been reported across Africa. In South Africa’s Addo Elephant National Park, 98 percent of the females are tuskless.

In southern Kenya, which also suffered from heavy poaching, elephants often have smaller teeth.

And 25 years ago it emerged that in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park, 15 percent of females and nine percent of males were born without tusks, compared to one percent in the 1930s.

Other examples of rapid evolution include Britain’s peppered moth. It was dark during the Industrial Revolution to camouflage against soot. Lighter versions are now common. And finches on the Galapagos have developed different sized bills depending on food availability.

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