Elephants Are Evolving To Have No Tusks In Response To Poaching

In Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, female elephants are being born without their most defining feature – sturdy, powerful, and seemingly necessary tusks. Scientists believe this shows that elephants are evolving as a result of despicable poaching and killing.

In a study published in the journal Science, these females being born without tusks in order to increase the chances of survival is a result of the Mozambique civil war that lasted from 1977 to 1992 – which saw elephant populations in the Gorongosa National Park decrease by 90% due to ivory poaching by armed forces on both sides in order to produce money for ammunition and weapons.

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As the study notes, poaching had been associated with female elephants, as no records of tuskless males in the National Park exist. Furthermore, between 1970 and 2000, the frequency of tuskless females saw a nearly threefold increase from 18.5% to 50.9%.

Speaking to ABC News, Princeton University evolutionary biologist Shane Campbell-Staton — who was an author in the study — stated that a tuskless female elephant would have five times the chances of survival compared to a female with tusks during the civil war.

In an interview with Vox, Princeton biology professor (and another author of the study) Robert Pringle explained that the evidence that tusklessness comes from genetics was backed by the fact that tuskless females are often birth from mothers who too are tuskless. This means the trait is passed down from one generation to the next. Mutations in the X chromosome regions could play a part as well, the scientists say.

As for why female elephants are experiencing this change instead of males, Vox says it has to do with the genetics of tooth development. Vox also states that one of the genes associated with tusklessness is actually present within humans, where it limits the growth of our lateral incisors.

Campbell-Staton said that he had heard about the rise of “tusklessness” in regions that experienced heavy poaching in graduate school, but there was no research in order to explain why these evolutionary changes were happening.

Campbell-Staton also explains that wildlife exploitation, whether performed for greed, resources, or food, of humans has become a “powerful selective driver” in the evolution of species that are often the most affected.

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While it is fascinating to see a species react to environmental shifts in order to ensure its preservation for the future, the devolution of tusks can have negative impacts on the elephant’s environments. As the authors explain, tusks are tools that are used for excavating food, minerals, and peeling bark.

The elephants’ abilities to kill trees effectively can “catalyze forest-to-grassland transitions at large scales,” which in turn creates habitats for numerous other species. Without the multi-purpose tusks, ripples could be sent throughout the Mozambique ecosystem.

“Accordingly, a population-wide increase in tusklessness may have downstream impacts such as reduced bioturbation, shifts in plant species composition, reduced spatial heterogeneity, and increased tree cover—any of which could affect myriad other ecosystem properties.”

However, these impacts may not be permanent. Campbell-Staton explains that if ivory poaching continues to decline and elephant populations rise as a result, we could see the species grow their tusks back in a sort of evolutionary turnaround.

Of course, places such as Mozambique are still experiencing poaching to this day. In March 2020, the Mozambique’s National Administration for Conservation Area — or ANAC — launched an anti-poaching campaign alongside WildAid in an effort to bring awareness to the region.

According to National Geographic, some 30,000 elephants are killed from poaching every year out of a continent-wide 400,000. Although Africa saw a decline in elephant poaching from 2011 to 2018, much of that decline came from East African sites, and not from the continent as a whole.