Jul 23, 2019 | Updated: 09:13 AM EDT

Could African Elephants be leaving behind an identifiable trait to preserve their species?

Mar 28, 2019 08:28 AM EDT

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Living organisms have been evolving for billions of years. It's a process that usually isn't noticeable within a generation, but elephants at the Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, Africa, are evolving right before our eyes and the reason is perseverance. Researchers believe the heavy presence of poaching has led elephants here to evolve without tusks, so their human predators have no reason to kill them and steal their tusks for ivory.

"There are multiple things that could produce that sort of thing in elephant populations, but the leading hypothesis is that there's been a substantial amount of pressure placed on those populations by poachers," says Ryan Long, a researcher who has studied the elephants at Gorongosa National Park. "It's not natural selection that is causing elephants to evolve without tusks," Long adds "It's an artificial selection, caused by decades of poaching."

Long, an assistant professor of wildlife sciences University of Idaho, said tusks are usually a necessity, especially for male elephants. Males use their tusks for combat and for breeding rights, among other things. However, in an environment where poachers are a mortal threat, "tusks suddenly become a liability," Long explained. "And so, as opposed to being something that benefits elephants, those elephants that have tusks ... they're the ones that get targeted first."

Researchers are still trying to pinpoint all the genetics that underpin tusklessness. However, poachers are essentially weeding out the gene for tusk growth from elephant populations. As more elephants with tusks get killed, the ones that survive and breed are more likely to be tuskless ones who pass down their tuskless genes. "In a very short amount of time, you've got a lot of populations of elephants who don't have tusks," Long said.

Normally, about 4 to 6 percent of female elephants are tuskless. That number, however, is increasing for populations that have been subjected to poaching. In Mozambique preserve, only about 200 adult female elephants survive, and according to National Geographic, recent research shows that about a third of the younger females-the generation born since a civil war ended in 1992-never developed tusks. 

Poachers have killed more than four elephants a day since 2011 in the Mozambique nature reserve, cutting the population from 12,000 to as few as 1,500, according to a conservation group. With statistics such as this and the ineffectiveness of laws and activists, it only makes sense that elephants, one of the smartest creatures on earth, would take control of the situation. 

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