Story at a glance

  • A new study says mass ivory poaching may have driven a sharp increase in the number of female elephants in Mozambique born without tusks.
  • One in five females in the region were tuskless before a civil war that fueled the ivory trade.
  • After the war, about half of the females were born without tusks.

A new study is detailing how ivory poaching may have driven a rapid evolution of tusklessness in female African elephants in parts of Mozambique. 

The country located on the southeastern coast of Africa went through a bloody civil war that lasted from 1977 to 1992. Over the duration of the conflict, both sides hunted elephants for ivory as a way to finance their war efforts. 

The poaching led to a rapid population decline. In an area of the country now known as Gorongosa National Park, some 90 percent of the elephants were slaughtered for their tusks over the 15-year civil war. 

Now a new study published in the journal Science suggests that mass hunting may have driven a sharp increase in the number of female elephants in the region that are naturally tuskless. 


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Using historical video footage from Gorongosa park and other data, researchers calculated that nearly one in five females in the region were tuskless before the war. Usually just about 2 percent of female African elephants are born without tusks. 

Currently, however, half of the females in Gorongosa are born without tusks, a crucial tool that helps the animal pry bark off trees or dig for roots for food. 

Tuskless females were five times more likely to survive over the course of the war and therefore more likely to pass on the trait to their offspring. 

“This is an example of how human activity is changing the evolutionary trajectory of species all across the tree of life,” Shane Campbell-Staton, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton behind the research, told Business Insider

“Humans are the most influential evolutionary pressure in history besides the five major mass extinction events,” he added. 

Researchers noted, however, there are no tuskless males in the region, likely due to a mutation in the tooth-building genes that is lethal to males. 


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Published on Oct 22, 2021