Elephants use their tusks to dig for water, strip bark for food, and joust with other elephants. But those big incisors make them a target for ivory poaching. Now researchers have figured out how poaching in Mozambique has led to more elephants who don’t grow tusks.
During Mozambique’s civil war from 1977 to 1992, fighters sold ivory tusks to finance war efforts. Around 90% of elephants were killed in what’s now Gorongosa National Park.
Many of the survivors shared a trait: half the females were naturally tuskless. Before the war, fewer than 20% lacked tusks.
Genes determine whether elephants inherit tusks from their parents. Tusklessness was once rare in African savanna elephants. Now it’s more common.
The tuskless surviving females passed on their genes. About half their female offspring were tuskless. More surprisingly, two-thirds of their offspring were female.
Researchers studied Gorongosa’s roughly 800 elephants over several years. The team collected blood samples from seven tusked and 11 tuskless female elephants, and then analyzed their DNA for differences. Genes are located on chromosomes, which are made of DNA and proteins.
Because the tuskless elephants were female, scientists focused on the X chromosomes. Most female mammals have two X chromosomes. Males have one X and one Y chromosome.
Scientists suspected that the relevant gene was dominant. That means that a female needs only one altered gene to be tuskless. They also think that the gene may cause males who have it to die early in development.
Some scientists call this evolution. But the elephants aren’t changing into a new species. They are adapting to new conditions.
In nature, the creatures that are most able to survive in their environment are the ones that live long enough to have more babies. The ones with helpful traits may survive and pass those traits (called adaptations) through genes to the next generation. This is called natural selection. And that’s how these elephants lost their tusks.
The theory of evolution claims that natural selection is the way living organisms came into being over millions of years. Some of its proponents do not believe that God created the world and its creatures.
But watching adaptations in nature shows just how amazing the Creator is. His creation is not static. God made His creatures adaptable.
Now scientists say it looks like the elephants without tusks are changing their diet. The tuskless pachyderms eat mostly grass. The tusked eat more legumes and tough woody plants, from which they can peel bark. What’s next for the elephants?
Why? African elephants aren’t evolving into a new species. But they are adapting to hard times and this ability shows God’s creativity and providence—His care for His creation.