Elephants May Be Evolving Past Tusks, Scientists Blame Humans

A study published Thursday suggests some African elephants may be rapidly evolving toward no longer having tusks. The researchers blame human poaching for ivory as the likely culprit.

The findings were published Thursday in Science. According to the study,the female African elephants studied for the research appeared to have adapted rapidly as a response to international ivory poaching as a means to be passed over by poachers.

As the paper pointed out, the "selective killing of species that bear anatomical features such as tusks and horns is the basis of a multibillion-dollar illicit wildlife trade." Not having tusks might then prolong the survival of the species, the researchers said.

However, what remains unknown is what may be the negative effects of tusklessness. Tusks are used by elephants for feeding, self-defense and other functions, and elephants' entire behavioral patterns may end up being impacted.

Female African elephants may be evolving to be tuskless to avoid being poached, according to a new study. In this photo, an elephant keepers walks with elephant orphans at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy, central Kenya, on February 26, 2020. Getty

Shane Campbell-Staton, a lead author of the study and a researcher from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University, and his colleagues studied the effects of ivory hunting on the evolution of African elephants in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, during and after the Mozambican Civil War (1977-1992).

Heavy ivory poaching by armed forces occurred during this conflict since both sides financed their war efforts through the ivory trade. This resulted in African elephant populations in Gorongosa National Park declining by 90 percent during the course of the 20-year conflict.

The researchers found that as the population gradually recovered following the war's end, a large proportion of females were born tuskless. The study authors wrote, "Further exploration revealed this trait to be sex-linked and related to specific genes that generated a tuskless phenotype more likely to survive in the face of poaching."

The authors noted a lack of tuskless males, leading them to believe sex-linked genetics played a role in the adaptation.

Looking at a period of 28 years, which included 15 years during the civil war, the group found the amount of tuskless female elephants at the park increased by approximately 30 percent. The study estimated the survival rate for these tuskless females during the period studied was more than five times higher than that for elephants with tusks.

Computer models were also used to test the researchers' results, and these models confirmed that it was "extremely unlikely" that the increase of tusklessness in Gorongosa occurred by chance. Instead, they cited "a heritable genetic basis for tusklessness and an evolutionary response to poaching-induced selection in Gorongosa."

Recent research has claimed that poaching peaked in 2011 and has been decreasing slightly every year. However, National Geographic wrote in 2020 that around 30,000 African elephants are still killed every year by poachers out of a population of 400,000 elephants on the continent.