More elephants are being born tuskless thanks to poaching

Poaching is acting as unnatural selection in favoring tuskless African elephants.

elephant face
Photo credit: CAMERON SPENCER

Natural selection as a means of evolution is generally thought of as a slow process, and it usually is. That is, unless there's some unnaturally strong influence at work. And that's exactly what's happening to African elephants. The unnatural influence is humans, or more specifically, poachers, and it's causing an increase in the births of tuskless elephants. Those who do have tusks are becoming less likely to reproduce since they're hunted down and killed for their ivory.

Not every elephant has tusks. In a population without significant poaching going on, from 2 to 6 percent of females are born without tusks. Males without them are less common because they're required weapons for earning procreation rights, and tuskless males don't generally get to reproduce.

In areas where there is poaching, however, the story's very different, and the quest for elephant ivory is changing the types of offspring now being produced. In Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, half of the older females have tusks. The situation has improved since poaching was brought under control there 20 years ago, but a third of the younger elephants are tuskless nonetheless, a meaningful increase over the historical norm.

In Zambia's South Luangwa National Park and the Lupande Game Management Area, tuskelessness increased from 10.5 percent in 1969 to 38.2 percent in 1989 The numbers have improved slightly since then there as well, but only due to more tusked females migrating from nearby areas.

Elephant in Zambia (HANS HILLEWAERT)

There's been big money in China's black market for ivory, from a peak of $2,100 USD per kilogram in 2014 to $730 per kilogram in February of 2017. There are several factors in the reduction, most notably the easing of demand for luxury goods due to the country's economic slowdown, the government's efforts to shut down the ivory business, and changes in Chinese consumers' attitudes toward ivory and its cost to elephants.

(AFP)

But between 2007 and 2014, some 144,000 African elephants were killed, placing the species perilously close to extinction in some areas. Researchers warn that over time, African elephants may evolve into primarily tuskless creatures, as Asian elephant have.

And that, in itself, is a problem. For elephants, tusks perform a number of important functions. They're weapons for use against predators and other elephants, watering holes can be dug with them and bark can be stripped from trees, and they're useful for pushing away brush and other obstacles in their path. (Interestingly, elephants, when it comes to tusks, can be “lefties" or “righties" — there's evidence that they prefer one tusk over the other.)

So while an elephant without tusks may be safe from poaching, it's in a precarious position when it comes to survival, especially on its own, and being affiliated with a herd that has enough tusks to take care of the necessary tasks is the only real defense.

"Conservationists say an elephant without tusks is a crippled elephant," says the BBC.

Image source: TONY KARUMBA


‘Designer baby’ book trilogy explores the moral dilemmas humans may soon create

How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.

Surprising Science
  • A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
  • It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
  • While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Keep reading Show less

Massive 'Darth Vader' isopod found lurking in the Indian Ocean

The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.

A close up of Bathynomus raksasa

SJADE 2018
Surprising Science
  • A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
  • It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
  • The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Keep reading Show less

These are the world’s greatest threats in 2021

We look back at a year ravaged by a global pandemic, economic downturn, political turmoil and the ever-worsening climate crisis.

Luis Ascui/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs

Billions are at risk of missing out on the digital leap forward, as growing disparities challenge the social fabric.

Keep reading Show less

Columbia study finds new way to extract energy from black holes

A new study explains how a chaotic region just outside a black hole's event horizon might provide a virtually endless supply of energy.

Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Surprising Science
  • In 1969, the physicist Roger Penrose first proposed a way in which it might be possible to extract energy from a black hole.
  • A new study builds upon similar ideas to describe how chaotic magnetic activity in the ergosphere of a black hole may produce vast amounts of energy, which could potentially be harvested.
  • The findings suggest that, in the very distant future, it may be possible for a civilization to survive by harnessing the energy of a black hole rather than a star.
Keep reading Show less
Mind & Brain

A psychiatric diagnosis can be more than an unkind ‘label’

A popular and longstanding wave of thought in psychology and psychotherapy is that diagnosis is not relevant for practitioners in those fields.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast