Female African Elephants Born Without Tusks On The Rise As Adaptation To Poachers

The Mozambican Civil War, which lasted more than 15 years and killed more than one million Mozambicans, devastated the African country and sent shockwaves through its political and social structure that are still felt to this day.

The human cost is inestimable — and research is emerging that suggests it has had incredible and unforeseen impacts on some of the area’s most endangered species.

Gorongosa National Park, a habitat for African elephants that were heavily poached during the civil war, saw losses of 90% during the height of the violence.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

While those numbers are recovering steadily, the population remains threatened — and has been forever changed by the pursuit of ivory that funded both sides of the conflict in the war-torn nation.

A recently-published study titled “Ivory poaching and the rapid evolution of tusklessness in African elephants,” from a team of researchers funded by UCLA and other interest groups in the area has found that “As the population recovered after the war, a relatively large proportion of females were born tuskless.”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/tontantravel

Further analysis concluded that natural selection had emphasized certain genes “that generated a tuskless phenotype more likely to survive in the face of poaching.”

Similar to the rattlesnakes that no longer rattle, these elephants adapted to a human-introduced threat in their environment over generations by selecting for genes that were more beneficial: A tuskless elephant is ironically more defenseless in the wild, but that same trait is the perfect protection against the most dangerous predator: humans.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, the study’s authors note that this trait has always existed in African elephants, but was previously sexually selected against and rarely passed on because it was a disadvantage for the animals who use their tusks for defense and maneuverability.

The tide of violence from the civil war, however, overrode this preference: “If our interpretation is correct, this study represents a rare example of human-mediated selection favoring a female-specific trait despite its previously unknown deleterious effect in males (sexually antagonistic selection),” the authors wrote.

Photo: Pixabay/Barbara Fraatz

By tracking the rapid changes that humans can trigger in just a generation or two, the authors hope to be able to encourage more thoughtful interactions with the natural world and more rapid responses to mitigate unintended consequences from exploitation, violence, and instability.

Read more of the study’s findings here!

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