Poaching of elephants has been an ongoing threat for decades. These large, amazing creatures are slaughtered, often under the cover of darkness, for their tusks, which are sold for tens of thousands of dollars. That poaching has continued and even increased in recent years, despite dozens of concerted efforts by governments and organizations aimed to stop it. Many elephant populations are now threatened to the point of being endangered, with entire species facing extinction.
So we were amazed but not necessarily surprised to hear that some of these elephants have been evolving over generations to not grow tusks at all.
Speaking about the research team that explored this phenomenon:
“The team undertook the study after observing both growing rates of tusklessness among female elephants and severe population declines (2,542 elephants in 1972 whittled down to 242 in 2000) among both sexes in Gorongosa National Park. A civil war in Mozambique from 1977 to 1992 killed off some 90 percent of the country’s elephant population, the paper notes, as armies on both sides of conflict targeted the animals for ivory. Though tusklessness is currently considered a rare genetic trait in female African elephants, they’re significantly less attractive to poachers. Tuskless elephants are therefore much more likely to survive, passing on the tuskless gene to their offspring, who pass it onto their offspring, and so on. The paper notes that as the population of elephants took a nosedive, there was a threefold increase in the frequency of tuskless females. “
This isn’t a feel-good story, but it is another example of how evolution continues on Earth, even today.
The journal Science has a very detailed and scientific deep dive into the evolution of the species, and how generations of elephants are changing to adapt to their new, cruel environment.