From: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Published June 6, 2017 10:33 AM

Genetic study shakes up the elephant family tree

New research reveals that a species of giant elephant that lived 1.5 million to 100,000 years ago – ranging across Eurasia before it went extinct – is more closely related to today’s African forest elephant than the forest elephant is to its nearest living relative, the African savanna elephant.

The study challenges a long-held assumption among paleontologists that the extinct giant, Palaeoloxodon antiquus, was most closely related to the Asian elephant. The findings, reported in the journal eLife, also add to the evidence that today’s African elephants belong to two distinct species, not one, as was once assumed.

Understanding their genetic heritage is key to keeping today’s elephants from going extinct, said University of Illinois animal sciences professor Alfred Roca, a co-author of the new study. Roca led research in the early 2000s that provided the first genetic evidence that African elephants belonged to two distinct species. Subsequent studies have confirmed this, as does the new research.

“We’ve had really good genetic evidence since the year 2001 that forest and savanna elephants in Africa are two different species, but it’s been very difficult to convince conservation agencies that that’s the case,” Roca said. “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.”

Read more at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Image: A new study reconfigures the elephant family tree, placing the giant extinct elephant Palaeoloxodon antiquus closer to the African forest elephant, Loxodonta cyclotis, than to the Asian elephant, Elephas maximus, which was once thought to be its closest living relative. (Credit: Graphic by Asier Larramendi Eskorza and Julie McMahon)

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