African elephants: 2 for 1 deal

Savanna and forest elephants in Africa are two distinct species, according to new genetic data, settling a long-standing controversy

Jef Akst
Jef Akst

Jef Akst is managing editor of The Scientist, where she started as an intern in 2009 after receiving a master’s degree from Indiana University in April 2009 studying the mating behavior of seahorses.

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African savanna elephants weigh nearly twice as much as their forest counterparts, yet many have considered them merely different populations of the same species. But new genetic evidence finally puts the debate to rest: The two groups are indeed distinct species that diverged between 2.6 and 5.6 million years ago.
African savanna elephant
Image: Wikimedia commons, nickandmel2006
"These two African groups of elephants are really deeply diverged," said population geneticist linkurl:David Reich; of Harvard Medical School. "There's really two very distinct species of elephants in Africa. The paper settles that controversy, I think."Reich and his colleagues did targeted genome sequencing for both groups of African elephants, as well as the Asian elephant and two extinct species -- the wooly mammoth and the mastodon. The results demonstrated that not only are the savanna and forest elephants in Africa two species, they are as distinct from each other as the Asian elephant...
African forest elephant
Image: Wikimedia commons, Thomas Breuer
The ScientistN. Rohland, et al., "Genomic DNA sequences from mastodon and woolly mammoth reveal deep speciation of forest and savanna elephants," PLoS Biology, 8:e1000564, 2010.

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