A recent discovery from the animal science research of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has shaken up the common belief of the elephant family tree. The study shows that a prehistoric elephant was not the ancestor of African savanna elephant.

The finding challenges common assumptions from the paleontologists, that a giant prehistoric elephant, Palaeoloxodon antiquus was closely related to the Asian elephant. According to the news release from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the prehistoric elephant that lived around 1.5 million to 100,000 years ago is a close relative to African forest elephant.

This finding of the prehistoric elephant genetic study also shakes the elephant family tree further. It is because this study discovers that African forest elephant and African savanna elephant are two distinct species. The study was led by an Associate Professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Alfred Roca, who has been studying the genetic trace of the elephant since early 2000.

“We’ve had really good genetic evidence since the year 2001 that forest and savanna elephants in Africa are two different species," Dr. Roca said explaining the prehistoric elephant and its descendants. “With the new genetic evidence from Palaeoloxodon, it becomes almost impossible to argue that the elephants now living in Africa belong to a single species.”

Dr. Roca and his team have published their research on the prehistoric elephant in the eLife Science journal. The lead author of the study is a biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, Matthias Meyer.

In their study, the scientists analyzed the mitochondrial and nuclear DNA of the elephant. This mitochondrial DNA is passed only from mothers to their offspring, while nuclear DNA is a blend of paternal and maternal genes. Based on the finding from the bone of the prehistoric elephant Palaeoloxodon antiquus, they discovered that African forest elephant is the descendant of the Palaeoloxodon antiquus, but not the African savanna elephant.