You may not have been debating whether African elephants living in savannah or forests were two separate species, but it’s been an unanswered question among scientists for a while. A new study in the journal PLoS Biology claims to put the question to rest though, determining though DNA sequencing that African elephants are in fact two separate species–in fact they are genetically further apart than Asian elephants are from the extinct wooly mammoth.
Because of differences in size and shape–savannah elephants weigh 6-7 tons, while forest elephants are usually half that–some researchers believed that the two should be classified as two separate species, with the name Loxodonta africana proposed for savannah elephants and Loxodonta cyclotis for forest elephants.
This research shows that the two elephant populations have been separated for at least three million years, occurring roughly at the same time as Asian elephants diverged from wooly mammoths. The split is nearly as old as between humans and chimpanzees.
So, what’s the green connection here? African forest elephants are under far greater poaching threat than savannah elephants, which in some areas are seeing large population increases.
BBC News quotes the chairman of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission:
We’d have to review the evidence to see whether we need to split the African into two entries on the Red List of Threatened Species. Currently the species is listed as Vulnerable, but it’s possible that if there are two, one would come out in a more serious category and the other in a less serious one. This could be helpful for highlighting the Central African issue.