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War elephant myths debunked by DNA
Date:1/9/2014

Through DNA analysis, Illinois researchers have disproved decades of rumors and hearsay surrounding the ancient Battle of Raphia, the only known battle between Asian and African elephants.

"What everyone thinks about war elephants is wrong," said Alfred Roca, a professor of animal sciences and member of the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who led the research published in the Journal of Heredity.

Over the years, there has been a lot of speculation about a Greek Historian's account of the battle between Ptolemy IV, the King of Egypt, and Antiochus III the Great, the King of the Seleucid kingdom, in which the African elephants (obtained by ancient Egyptians from what is today the country of Eritrea) were said to be smaller than the Asian elephants.

"Until well into the 19th century the ancient accounts were taken as fact by all modern natural historians and scientists and that is why Asian elephants were given the name Elephas maximus," said Neal Benjamin, an Illinois veterinary student who studies elephant taxonomy and ancient literature with Roca. "After the scramble for Africa by European nations, more specimens became available and it became clearer that African elephants were mostly larger than Asian elephants. At this point, speculation began about why the African elephants in the Polybius account might have been smaller. One scientist, Paules Deraniyagala, even suggested that they might even have been an extinct smaller subspecies."

In 1948, Sir William Gowers reasoned that Ptolemy must have fought with forest elephants that fled from larger Asian elephants, as the Greek Historian described. Since then, the idea has been cited and re-cited in many papers.

Until now, the main question remained: Did Ptolemy employ African savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) or African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) in the Battle or Raphia?

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Contact: Nicholas Vasi
nvasi@illinois.edu
Institute for Genomic Biology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Source:Eurekalert

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