The possibility that the two might be separate species was first raised in 2001, but this is the most compelling scientific evidence so far that they are indeed distinct.
Previously, many naturalists believed that African savanna elephants and African forest elephants were two populations of the same species, despite the significant size differences. The savanna elephant has an average shoulder height of 3.5 meters whereas the forest elephant has an average shoulder height of 2.5 meters. The savanna elephant weighs between six and seven tons, roughly double the weight of the forest elephant.
DNA analysis revealed a wide range of genetic diversity within each species. The savanna elephant and woolly mammoth have very low genetic diversity, Asian elephants have medium diversity, and forest elephants have very high diversity. Researchers believe that this is due to varying levels of reproductive competition among males.
"We now have to treat the forest and savanna elephants as two different units for conservation purposes," says Alfred Roca, assistant professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Illinois. "Since 1950, all African elephants have been conserved as one species. Now that we know the forest and savanna elephants are two very distinctive animals, the forest elephant should become a bigger priority for conservation purposes."
|Contact: Jennifer Shike|
University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences