Photo: James Hopkirk (Flickr)
Did you know that a new species of elephant was just discovered. No, the elephant species wasn’t hiding. Scientists suspected that two populations, African savannah and African forest elephants, were separate species because of their size differences.
Differences Between Species
Forest elephants are three feet shorter at the shoulder than savannah elephants, weigh half as much, and have an extra front toe.
But they couldn’t be sure about their suspicions until researchers compared African elephant, Asian elephant, woolly mammoth, and mastodon DNA. Mammoths and mastodons are extinct but scientists got DNA from fossilized teeth.
But getting fossil DNA was important for their comparison. You see, when a species is separated into two isolated geographic populations, unique genetic mutations occur in each population over long periods of time.
The longer the populations are apart, the greater the changes. At a certain point, the two populations diverge enough to be called different species.
Scientists use changes in DNA as a type of clock to estimate how long two species have been separated. Researchers found that not only are savannah and forest elephants different species, they diverged from each other at about the same time that Asian elephant and woolly mammoths diverged.
Diversion Happened A Long Time Ago
Diversion happened at least 1.9 million years. That’s almost as old as the split between chimpanzees and humans.
Researchers found a new species hiding in plain sight. It will be exciting to see what they discover next.