Elephants without tusks?

By Razib Khan | March 31, 2013 1:21 am


Image credit: Mister-E.

It has recently come to my attention that there is wide variation in the frequency of tuskless male elephants across populations. These individuals are termed maknas. To review, while both male and female African elephants have tusks, prominent tusks are only a feature of males in Asian elephants. Yet among wild Sri Lankans, which number on the order of ~5,000 individuals, tuskless males are ~90% of the population! Similar population frequencies have been reported in the few Chinese elephants than remain in Yunnan province. Tuskless apparently also may be a heritable trait among some African elephant populations. I think you know where I’m going with this. Seeing that China’s demand side appetite for ivory is resulting in more poaching, and is unlikely to abate over the next 10 years or so, the heritable variation which results in lack of tusks in elephants may be a possible glimmer of hope. Of course, elephant generations are long, so I’m not offering an adaptive panacea. Just a likely prediction.

Literature: Tuskless bulls in Asian elephant Elephas maximus. History and population genetics of a man-made phenomenon.

Addendum: I am aware that this does not address habit destruction.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment
MORE ABOUT: Elephants
  • TheBrett

    Here’s an article from 1998 showing that that was happening in the African elephant population, to some degree. At Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park, 15% of female elephants and 9% of male elephants were born without tusks. If nothing is done to seriously slow predation for ivory, then odds are that will just increase while the overall elephant population declines.

    If it’s any consolation, the tusks might start to return in the population if the ivory supply collapses and Chinese demand abates.

  • kiiski

    Almost all female elephants in Addo in South Africa are also tuskless (probably due to an earlier genetic bottleneck and/or local adaptation) and the males have relatively small tusks. A few bulls with large tusks have recently been introduced there from Kruger Park (officially to fight inbreeding, but attracting tourists may also be a motive). This seems a bit short-sighted, considering the poaching problem.

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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