Tag Archives: elephant

Elephants are evolving to lose their tusks due to poaching pressure

Tusks are usually a big plus for elephants, as they can use them to dig for water, strip bark for food, and joust with other elephants. But those big incisors can also be a liability amid intense ivory poaching. Now, researchers have found that elephants in Mozambique have evolved towards tusklessness in an area affected by poachers. 

Image credit: Flickr / Juraj

Mozambique went through a civil war from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, with both sides of the conflict targeting elephants for ivory to finance their war efforts. As a result, elephant population dropped more than 90% in what’s now the country’s Gorongosa National Park, going from 2,000 animals when the conflict started to about 250. 

Many of those who survived shared one key characteristic: over 30% of the females were naturally tuskless, meaning they couldn’t develop tusks, while before the war only 18% lacked tusks. Genes are behind whether elephants inherit tusks from their parents. So after the war the tuskless surviving females passed their genes with surprising results. 

“Our study shows how a sudden pulse of civil unrest can cause abrupt and persistent evolutionary shifts in long-lived animals even amid extreme population decline. In Gorongosa, recovery of both elephant abundance and ancestral tusk morphology may be crucial for ecosystem restoration,” the researchers wrote in the journal Science. 

An elephant’s evolution

Researchers from Princeton University worked with colleagues in Mozambique to further understand how ivory trade had tipped the scales of natural selection. They observed over 800 elephants in the Gorongosa national park over several years and created a catalogue of mothers and offspring by collecting blood samples from them. 

As tuskless elephants were female, the team decided to focus on the X chromosome. While males have an X and Y chromosome, females have two X. They also believed that the relevant gene was dominant (a female needs only one altered gene to be tuskless) and when passed to male embryos it could alter their development phase. 

After sequencing the genomes, the researchers identified a dominant gene that may explain the tusklessness, called AMELX. The gene is passed from mothers to offspring on the X chromosome — remarkably, humans have it too. In people, the gene disruption causes brittle teeth in females. But in human males a disrupted gene usually means death. 

For the researchers, this could also be true of African elephants. If a male gets a disrupted AMELX gene, he likely dies. But the mutated gene leads just to tusklessness in a female elephant. Not having tusks might not seem like a critical issue, but this could actually have a snowball effect on the whole ecosystem of the African elephants.

If an elephant doesn’t have tusks, it means that their behavior changes. They don’t push for trees anymore because they can’t strip their bark, for example. This affects other animals too. Once elephants push over tees, this opens new space for other grassland plants, which creates habitats to other species. A decline in tusked elephants alters that process. 

Ultimately, while this may allow elephants to survive the poaching crisis, it could have long-term cascading effects for the entire ecosystem.

“A population-wide increase in tusklessness may have downstream impacts such as reduced bioturbation, shifts in plant species composition, reduced spatial heterogeneity, and increased tree cover—any of which could affect myriad other ecosystem properties. Elsewhere, evolution in species that perform key ecological functions has exerted potent effects,” the researchers wrote

The study was published in the journal Science. 

African elephants inch closer to extinction as poaching and habitat loss hit hard

The African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) is now listed as Critically Endangered and the African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana) as Endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. They’re more in danger than they have ever been, and it’s mostly due to habitat reduction and ivory trade.

Image credit: Flickr / S.Imeon

They are the world’s largest land animals, measuring up to 7.5 meters long and weighing over six tons. The emblematic savannah elephant roams grassy plants and woodlands, while the forest elephant lives in the equatorial forest of central and western Africa. Their trunk is used for communication and handling objects, including food. They’re also team players — not just among their own species, but across the entire ecosystem.

“They play key roles in ecosystems, economies, and in our collective imagination all over the world. The new IUCN Red List assessments underline the persistent pressures faced by these iconic animals,” Bruno Oberle, IUCN Director-General, said in a statement. “We must urgently put an end to poaching and ensure that sufficient suitable habitat is conserved.”

Before the new update, African elephants were treated as a single species, listed as Vulnerable by IUCN. This is the first time the two species have been assessed separately for the Red List – the result of a consensus that emerged among experts following new research into the genetics of the elephant populations.

Only 415,000 elephants remain in Africa but the number has fallen drastically during the past three decades, IUCN said. The number of African forest elephants fell by more than 86% over a period of 31 years, while the population of African savanna elephants decreased by at least 60% over the last 50 years, according to the most recent assessments — and the numbers continue to drop.

Both species have suffered declines due to an increase in poaching, which peaked in 2011 but continues to threaten populations. This adds up with the ongoing conversion of their habitats to agriculture. The situation changes from country to country. Botswana has too many elephants for its ecosystem, for example, while on a continent-scale they are declining.

“With persistent demand for ivory and escalating human pressures on Africa’s wildlands, concern for Africa’s elephants is high, and the need to creatively conserve and wisely manage these animals and their habitats are more acute than ever,” Kathleen Gobush, lead assessor of the African elephants at IUCN, said in a statement.

The IUCN assessment also highlighted the impact of successful conservation efforts, such as anti-poaching measures, more supportive legislation, and land-use planning. Some forest elephants have stabilized in conservation areas in Gabon and Congo, while savanna elephant numbers have been stable or growing in the Kavango-Zambezi conservation area.

Isla Duporge from the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford told the BBC that “while on the surface this looks bleak, the fact it’s being flagged is actually positive.” She highlighted the work done by conservation organization “on the ground in Africa” and said they are the most crucial players in the effort to protect the elephants.

Elephant poaching is still at its peak in most of Africa

Although initial research suggested otherwise, poaching of African elephants has not decreased since 2011 in Western, Southern, and Central Africa, according to a new study. This highlights the need for continued efforts to save the remaining elephant populations on the continent.

Credit Flickr

Beginning around 2007, a wave of poaching for ivory affected populations of savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) and forest elephants (L. cyclotis) across Africa. The total population of savannah elephants decreased by 30% between 2007 and 2015. In some countries, elephant populations declined by over 50% in under 10 years.

Recent reports, however, indicated that elephant poaching may be abating. Since 2016, some African parks have reported reductions or even a halt in elephant poaching. Likewise, global ivory prices appear to have peaked and may have begun to fall, perhaps as a result of bans on ivory sales.

Besides Eastern Africa, poaching rates are still at their peak

In a new study, Elephants Without Borders (EWB) with the University of Washington applied a novel statistical technique to analyze poaching data from the Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) Program. They found poaching reduced only in Eastern Africa in recent years, dismissing previous estimations.

Lead author Dr. Scott Schlossberg, an analyst with EWB, said in a statement: “Reports of falling poaching rates in Africa are something of an illusion. Regionally, elephant poaching is decreasing only in Eastern Africa. For the rest of the continent, poaching rates are still near their peak and have changed little since 2011.”

The MIKE program is administered by The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals. At MIKE sites, rangers record the number of elephant carcasses they find. The proportion of those carcasses that were killed illegally was used as the measure of poaching rates in the new study.

The researchers said Central and Western Africa are the areas of more concern regarding poaching. In Western Africa, remaining elephants are mostly in small and scattered, which makes it difficult to withstand poaching. Central Africa is the home of the African forest elephant, a species that has experienced severe losses.

“The poachers are not easing up their efforts, so the countries of Africa and supporters of elephants around the world need to keep up the fight against poaching. We have already lost over 100,000 elephants to poaching since 2007. Reducing poaching should be a top priority of conservationists,” co-author Michael Chase of EWB said.

While they described the reduction in poaching in East Africa as “real and laudable,” the researches said governments and conservationists shouldn’t let that improvement influence their outlook on what’s happening in the rest of the continent. Poaching levels in Central and Western Africa are “unsustainable” and more vigilance and anti-poaching efforts are needed.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Elephant poaching is going down, but we need more action

A new study has found reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the future of elephants: while poaching is still too high, it has more than halved since 2011.

African elephant.

The rise of the ivory black market — especially the one in China and Southeast Asia — spelled very bad news for elephants. Every year, up to 10% of the entire population was killed by poachers, with peak poaching being reached in 2011. Now, a new survey found that poaching rates are down to 4% in 2017 — which, while much lower, is still very dangerous for elephant population.

One of the authors of the study, Dr. Colin Beale, from the University of York’s Department of Biology said:

“We are seeing a downturn in poaching, which is obviously positive news, but it is still above what we think is sustainable so the elephant populations are declining.”

“The poaching rates seem to respond primarily to ivory prices in South- East Asia and we can’t hope to succeed without tackling demand in that region.”

Recent surveys suggest that Africa hosts around 350,000 elephants. Every year, 10-15,000 are killed each year by poachers. Overall, poaching rates are on the decline but still worrying. Poaching is contributing to rapid declines in wild animal populations across Africa, not just in elephants, but in many other species as well. Government initiatives to fight poaching, however, are working — slowly, but they’re working. High-level, as well as a number of well-publicized ivory destruction events in China and the USA have also helped push elephant poaching higher up the international agenda.

This increased awareness made a significant impact, researchers say, culminating with an ivory trade ban introduced in China in 2017, but this study did not assess the impact this ban had on poaching figures. What the study did find, however, is that continued investment in law enforcement could further reduce poaching, but is unlikely to succeed without action that simultaneously reduces ivory demand and tackles corruption and poverty.

“We need to reduce demand in Asia and improve the livelihoods of people who are living with elephants in Africa; these are the two biggest targets to ensure the long-term survival of elephants”, Dr. Beale added.

“While we can’t forget about anti-poaching and law enforcement, improving this alone will not solve the poaching problem.”

Simply put, as long as there will be a high demand for ivory and a struggling local population, there will also be poaching. For long-term success, governments need to take solid measures to reduce demand for ivory — in contrast, the recent decision by the Trump administration to eliminate a ban on importing ivory trophies is counterproductive. We have the know-how, we just need to take the necessary actions.

Severin Hauenstein, from the University of Freiburg, concludes:

“This is a positive trend, but we should not see this as an end to the poaching crisis.”

“We need to understand the local and global processes driving illegal elephant hunting.”

The study has been published in Nature Communications.

Scientists reactivate 28,000 year-old mammoth cells

“I was so moved when I saw the cells stir,” said 90-year-old study co-author Akira Iritani. “I’d been hoping for this for 20 years.”

Elephants and mice

Her name is Yuka, or at least that’s what we call her. She lived 28,000 years ago in what is today Siberia, before becoming frozen and isolated in the frigid permafrost. But this wasn’t the end of Yuka’s story. In August 2010, the incredibly well-preserved carcass of Yuka was found by researchers working in Siberia — a naturally-preserved mummy.

Now, a team of Japanese and Russian scientists has managed to “reawaken” some of Yuka’s cells by implanting cell nuclei from the mammoth into the egg cells of mice.

“This suggests that, despite the years that have passed, cell activity can still happen and parts of it can be recreated,” genetic engineer Kei Miyamoto from Kindai University told AFP.

In total, 88 bone marrow and muscle tissue samples were collected from 273.5 milligrams of mammoth bone marrow and muscle tissue. Researchers selected the least-damaged ones and injected them into living mouse oocytes (immature egg cells). They then used live-cell imaging techniques to observe how the structures reacted in their new environment and whether or not they still exhibited some signs of life.

Stunningly, they did. There was very faint activity, but it was some cellular activity

nonetheless, including a process called “spindle assembly,” which acts as a molecular safeguard in to ensure faithful chromosome transmission during mitosis. This indicates that “cell nuclei are, at least partially, sustained even in over a 28,000 year period,” researchers write in the paper, which is a remarkable find.

Image credits: Cyclonaut/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0.

Jurassic Park?

However, this doesn’t mean that scientists will be able to clone mammoths anytime soon. For starters, they weren’t able to stimulate cellular division — a vital process of all living creatures. Technological improvements or harvesting even less damaged samples might be ‘coerced’ to divide, but this is still only speculation at this point.

Another roadblock is that of DNA. The DNA of Yuka was surprisingly well preserved, but it was still not in ideal condition. Much better samples are required to even discuss the possibility of cloning. But Yuka’s DNA might still provide valuable insights into how mammoths were able to survive in such a unique and unforgiving environment.

The study marks a “significant step toward bringing mammoths back from the dead,” researcher Kei Miyamoto, one of the study’s authors told Japan’s Nikkei news outlet. “We want to move our study forward to the stage of cell division,” he said, adding “we still have a long way to go.”

Even without cloning, researchers hope that they will soon be able to use gene-editing technologies like CRISPR to enable modern elephants to survive in different types of environments.

The study was published in Nature.

Poaching evolution: elephants are evolving to lose their tusks

It would be a remarkable example of evolution if it weren’t so terribly tragic: African elephants are pressured by poachers to become tusk-less.

Evolution is a ruthless process — the individuals better adapted to the environment are more likely to survive and have offspring, which subsequently means that the ones who aren’t as well adapted have lower chances of survival. Typically, evolution happens slowly and is driven by natural factors, but that’s not always the case.

For African elephants, not having tusks can be an evolutionary advantage, because they are less likely to be killed by poachers. This is the conclusion of Joyce Poole, an elephant behavior expert. Poole told National Geographic that poachers specifically like to target older females, and in that demographic, you really start to see a difference.

Genetically, tusklessness only occurs in 2-4% of female African elephants, but in Mozambique’s war-torn Gorongosa National Park, over 50% of all elderly females have no tusks — and they’re passing their genes on to the younger generations. Almost a third of younger females who were born after the war still have no tusks.

[panel style=”panel-success” title=”Poaching for tusks” footer=””]Elephant tusks are essentially overgrown teeth. They have a multitude of uses, including defense, offense, digging, lifting objects, gathering food, and stripping bark to eat from trees. Elephants also use their tusks as digging and boring tools, especially during the dry season, when they are looking for water.

For centuries, humans have used tusks to create ivory, which is a valuable commodity in some markets. This has led to the overhunting of many tusked species, including elephants, bringing them to the brink of extinction. [/panel]

This trend of tusklessness hasn’t only been observed in Mozambique. Josephine Smit, who studies elephant behavior as a researcher with the Southern Tanzania Elephant Program, says that many of the female elephants she is observing are tuskless — far more than what you’d expect under normal circumstances.

Poaching also reduces tusk size, a recent study concluded. Elephants in heavily poached areas tend to have smaller and lighter tusks, driven by a similar mechanism. Other studies have also revealed that hunting elephants is having a massive impact on their tusk evolution.

However, the one silver lining is that the tuskless elephants appear to be well and healthy.

Yet even if losing their tusks is nothing more than a significant discomfort, the lack of tusks would change how they behave, in ways that are not yet known. They may cover a larger range to look for food and water, to compensate for their inability to dig holes or access some food sources. This, in turn, could have cascading effects on the entire ecosystem. Some lizards, for instance, make their home in holes dug by elephants, or in trees felled by them. This change in behavior could place additional pressures not only on elephants but on a wide array of creatures.

Researchers are now working to better understand the implications of this unfortunate phenomenon.

 

How the African elephant’s cracked skin keeps it cool

The skin of African elephants has is covered in a cracking pattern that resembles damaged asphalt, dry mud in the sun, or Earth’s polar landscape. This pattern helps the elephant retain water on its surface and cool off during hot days in the savanna. Now, Swiss researchers have determined that the pattern isn’t created by shrinking of the skin (as some have suspected) but rather to a genuine fracture of the elephant’s outermost layer of the skin.

Credit: Pixabay.

Unlike humans, the African elephant doesn’t have sweat or sebum glands. This means it can’t keep its skin moist and flexible all by itself, nor can it cool off, which can make things very difficult for an elephant living in a dry and warm habitat. Luckily, the animal has evolved a clever solution: its wrinkled skin traps water and mud which both cools the elephant by evaporation and also serves to ward off parasites.

The applied mud doesn’t fall off easily because the skin is sculptured by a fine pattern of millions of channels that allow the spread and retention of 5 to 10 times more water than a flat surface.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers led by Michel Milinkovitch, a professor at the Department of Genetics and Evolution at the Université de Genève, now reports that the African elephant’s skin channels are cracks caused by the local bending stress of the epidermis. Three leading factors are responsible for this effect: hyper-keratinized and shedding deficient skin that grows on a lattice of millimetric elevations.

The researchers showed through computer simulations that the bending stress accumulates in between different levels of skin elevation as the skin thickens until cracks form, rejecting the ‘cracking by shrinking’ hypothesis

Mechanical instabilities like cracks in the pavement are not that common in living things. Previously, Milinkovitch’s lab showed that the crocodile’s pattern of scales forms through skin folding, a dynamic that is analogous to the cracking of drying mud. Now, the Swiss researchers have shown that not only does the African elephant skin feature channels that look like cracks, but that they are truly physical cracks of the keratinized epidermis.

Back of lower extremities of a person affected by ichthyosis. Credit: Walter Howard, Dr. T.R. Bailey / April 4, 1888.

Strikingly, the morphology o the African elephant’s skin is very similar to that of humans affected by ichthyosis vulgaris — a genetic disorder that is present in 1 in 250 people, and which is responsible for dry, scaly skin. Future studies that might confirm the molecular and cell biology analogy could lead to new treatments for this pathology.

“This correspondence would also demonstrate that similar mutations that occurred independently in the evolutionary lineages of humans and elephants turned out to be unfavourable in the former and adaptive in the latter” says Michel Milinkovitch.

The findings appeared in the journal Nature Communications.

DNA sequencing might help finally link smugglers to ivory shipments

New genetic sequencing efforts aim to give lawmakers the evidence they need to put ivory cartels down for good.

Tusk mammoth.

Image credits Roy Buri.

Although elephant ivory has been banned from international trade since 1989 (with few, disgraceful exceptions), African elephants continue to fall to poachers. Back in 2016, poaching was cited as the primary driver of elephant loss by the International Union for Conservation of Nature — a figure that totaled a chilling 111,000 elephants between 2005 and 2015. Current estimates place the number of African elephants in the wild at about 415,000.

This doesn’t sit well with an international team of researchers, led by members from the University of Washington (UW). By performing DNA analysis of large ivory seizures, the team links multiple shipments from a three-year period, when trafficking was at its peak, to dealers operating out of a handful of ports in Africa.

Tusky business

“Our prior work on DNA testing of illegal ivory shipments showed that the major elephant ‘poaching hotspots’ in Africa were relatively few in number,” said lead and corresponding author Samuel Wasser, director of the UW Center for Conservation Biology and a professor of biology.

“Now, we’ve shown that the number and location of the major networks smuggling these large shipments of ivory out of Africa are also relatively few.”

The team worked with samples of ivory trafficked between 2011 and 2014. After developing a rigorous sorting and DNA testing system, the team sequenced samples of tusks recovered from 38 different shipments. Through this approach, they could identify individual pairs of tusks, even if they were separated and shipped at different times to different areas of the globe.

Tusks from the same pair — although separated and shipped off on different boats — always originated from the same port, the team reports. They were almost always shipped within 10 months of one another, with high overlap in the geographic origins of tusks in the matching shipments, they add. They report that 11 of the 38 shipments the team analyzed contained tusks that had been separated after poaching but later shipped through the same ports (at different times) between 2011-2014.

It doesn’t sound like much on paper, but you have to consider that the illegal ivory trade is underpinned by large shipments. Roughly 70% of seizures between 1996 and 2011 involved at least half a metric ton (about 0.55 U.S. tons) of ivory, past research revealed.

Tusks.

Tusks from an ivory seizure in 2015 in Singapore after they had been sorted into pairs by the process developed by Wasser and his team.
Image credits Center for Conservation Biology / University of Washington.

Some of Wasser’s previous work involved developing a “genetic reference map” of African elephant populations, which they used to see which groups were most targeted by poachers. They built this map from DNA samples extracted mainly from elephant droppings (science is glamorous like that). Later, they cross-referenced this map with DNA from seized tusks, allowing the team to identify where each tusk was obtained with an accuracy of about 300 kilometers (roughly 186 miles). In a later paper, they announced that the bulk of seized tusks came from two “poaching hotspots” on the continent.

In order to sift through all this genetic data, Wasser’s team developed a protocol that could quickly subsample hundreds of tusks at a time, as they had “neither the time nor the money to collect samples and extract DNA from every tusk in a shipment,” he explains. They used this protocol for the current research, as well.

The team would identify pairs of tusks by measuring their diameters at the base, their color, and gum line (the place where an elephant’s lip rested on the tusk). This step let the team extract DNA from a single tusk in each pair, which should theoretically have slashed their work in half. The team, however, quickly noted that many tusks were ‘orphans’ — they were missing their partner tusk.

After comparing DNA samples from tusks among 38 large ivory consignments, confiscated from 2011 to 2014, they were able to match up 26 pairs of tusks from 11 shipments, even though they were only testing, on average, about one-third of the tusks in each seizure.

“There is so much information in an ivory seizure — so much more than what a traditional investigation can uncover,” said Wasser.

“Not only can we identify the geographic origins of the poached elephants and the number of populations represented in a seizure, but we can use the same genetic tools to link different seizures to the same underlying criminal network.”

Linking these large shipments to individual smuggling networks will help build the case against cartels that handle most of the ivory trade and shipment, Wasser explains. The team’s work could be used in court to link several counts of trafficking against the smugglers — who are usually only convicted for a single shipment.

“We reveal connections between what would otherwise be isolated ivory seizures — linking seizures not just to specific criminal networks operating in these ports, but to poaching and transport networks that funnel the tusks hundreds of miles to these cartels,” said Wasser.

“It is an investigative tool to help officials track these networks and collect evidence for criminal cases.”

The paper has been published in the journal Science Advances.

Seismology could soon be used to protect elephants from poachers

An innovative approach could help monitor elephants using earthquakes, and even protect them from poachers.

This image shows an African elephant with a visualization of the vibrations it generates, which can be used to determine its behavior. Image credits: Robbie Labanowski.

A story of elephants and earthquakes

As undergrads, we used to analyze open data from some seismographs in the city. Some were old and picked up a lot of noise and, on one of them, there was a strange wave that appeared every 10 minutes or so. It was too regular to be earthquake-related and, as it turns out, it was the local subway. Just like earthquakes, other things can generate waves that can be picked up by seismological equipment — in this case, it’s elephants.

In a new study, researchers describe how seismology could be used to track the movement of elephants, as well as their vocalizations.

The results seem to back the theory that elephants use ground vibrations for long-distance communications, but it’s surprising to see just how strong these vibrations really are.

“We were surprised by the size of the forces acting on the ground that were generated by elephants when they vocalize,” says Beth Mortimer of the Universities of Oxford and Bristol, UK. “We found that the forces generated through elephant calls were comparable to the forces generated by a fast elephant walk. This means that elephant calls can travel significant distances through the ground and, in favorable conditions, further than the distance that calls travel through the air.”

Mortimer focuses on animals that use vibrations to communicate between themselves — previously, she studied spiders and their webs but now, she’s moved to a bigger target. She believes that conservationists could ultimately design an alarm system using elephant-generated vibrations as a trigger.

Along with Will Rees, a Masters student, she recorded vibrations generated by wild elephants in Kenya while they displayed different behaviors, including walking and calling. They wanted to see how far elephant-generated vibrations travel and how they are affected by the terrain type and human noise.

They found that, under ideal conditions, the vibrations can be picked up from several kilometers away, but this varies greatly on the type of terrain and existing noise. A surprising result they gathered was that human noise can actually be very disruptive for the elephant calls — in other words, humans interfere with the elephants’ ability to communicate with each other over great distances.

But when the seismological receivers were close enough, they could be used to not only detect elephants, but also monitor their behavior and assess when they are threatened by poachers.

“We suggest that monitoring ground-based vibrations can be used in a practical context to not only detect elephants, but determine their behaviors,” Mortimer says. “Using multiple seismic recorders in remote locations, we suggest that detection, location, and classification algorithms can be generated that allow monitoring of elephants in real-time.”

However, before this can be realistically achieved, much more experimental data needs to be gathered and refined. Geophysicist Tarje Nissen-Meyer at the University of Oxford, UK, who was also involved in the study, wants to set up a larger, long-term network of seismic sensors. Along with aerial, visual, and acoustic surface sensors, a seismic network might also offer valuable information and alert park rangers when elephants are in trouble.

“We hope to build on these initial findings to develop a comprehensive approach for monitoring and understanding the behavior of large mammals in these pristine, changing, and fragile environments,” Nissen-Meyer says.

The study “Classifying elephant behaviour through seismic vibrations”, by Mortimer et al., has been published in Current Biology:  https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(18)30420-2

Ancient elephant species was twice as heavy as today’s modern cousins

Though inhospitable and arid today, as early as a couple thousand years ago the Arabian Peninsula was a green, lush ecosystem that housed a far greater biodiversity than it currently does. Among the many species of carnivores and herbivores that dotted the landscape was a now-extinct elephant species called Elephas recki, which grew to be 50% larger than today’s African elephants.

A 500,000-year-old tusk belonging to E. recki discovered in Saudi Arabia's Nafud Desert. Credit: Saudi Geological Survey.

A 500,000-year-old tusk belonging to E. recki discovered in Saudi Arabia’s Nafud Desert. Credit: Saudi Geological Survey.

E. recki occupied northern Africa and the Middle East from about 3.5 million years ago to 300,000 years ago, when it disappeared from fossil records. Given that it survived throughout the Pliocene and the Pleistocene, this was a rather successful species until — some speculate — it entered competition members of the genus Loxodonta, the African elephants of today. Its closest modern ancestor, however, is the Asian elephant.

Although E. recki and its five subspecies have been known to science for well over a hundred years, details concerning its appearance and behavior have only recently come together. One important contribution comes from paleontologists at the Saudi Geological Survey in Jeddah who closely worked with international colleagues to describe a well-preserved individual.

A tusked giant

The male ancient elephant was unearthed in 2014 in northwestern Saudi Arabia’s Nafud Desert. Researchers think they’ve so far collected about 60% of the animal’s fossilized bones, making it one of the best fossil collection of E. recki. 

Judging from these fossils, E. recki was truly a behemoth by today’s elephantine standards. It was roughly 50 percent larger than today’s biggest modern elephants but also twice as heavy, perhaps even more according to Dan Fisher, the director of the Museum of Paleontology at the University of Michigan.

Fisher closely worked with Saudi colleagues to describe the newly found specimen. The team is now digitizing the individual’s bones using laser-scanning technology and plan on releasing 3D models of the fossils open to the public.

E. recki scapular bone (shoulder blade) and humerus (upper arm). Credit: Saudi Geological Survey.

E. recki scapular bone (shoulder blade) and humerus (upper arm). Credit: Saudi Geological Survey.

It’s not clear at this point whether E. recki was in contact with early humans or not, though the overlapping timeline certainly favors this assumption.

Around the time this great elephant species went extinct, early human ancestors made treks out of Africa and dispersed into the Middle East where they might have encountered E. recki.

“We know that early humans were contemporaries of these elephants in this part of the Arabian Peninsula,” Fisher told Live Science. “Although we have not yet found sites where these elephants are associated with evidence of human activity, we want to be ready to interpret any such discoveries when and if they do arise.”

Fisher and colleagues are now looking for new digging sites where they hope to find new specimens but also maybe evidence of human co-existence.

More evidence adds up to support the intelligence of elephants

Researchers have shown that Asian elephants are even smarter than we thought. They exhibited bodily self-awareness and use it in real-life problem solving.

Image credits: University of Cambridge.

Self-awareness in both children and animals is regarded as a clear sign of intelligence, but it’s not exactly the easiest thing in the world to demonstrate. The classic study involves the subject looking at a reflection of itself in a mirror, and seeing whether or not it understands it is looking at itself. So far, only a handful of species has passed this test — great apes, dolphins, magpies and elephants. But more and more researchers argue that the mirror test is an imperfect and incomplete measure of one’s self-awareness. Self-awareness is not a simple black-or-white measure, it is a string of complex thoughts and understanding, and the mirror just doesn’t cover that.

So scientists started looking for alternative tests to complement the mirror, and one of the main candidates is a custom self-awareness test. This test looks at how individuals may recognize their bodies as obstacles to succeed in a problem-solving task. The idea is to analyze the individual’s understanding of the way his body interacts with the surrounding environment, and then see how the individual uses this to solve problems.

For the elephant version of this test, Dr Josh Plotnik, visiting researcher at the University of Cambridge and founder of conservation charity Think Elephants International, devised a new test. Working together with his colleague Rachel Dale (now a PhD student at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna), he attached a stick to a mat using a rope. The elephants had to walk onto the mat, pick up the stick and pass it to a trainer. As you can imagine, the trick was that the stick was connected to the mat, and with the elephant standing on the mat, it couldn’t pass it — it had to get off the mat for this to work. The elephants had to realize they need to get off the mat before they could pass the stick. They also had a control version of this test, in which the stick wasn’t tied to the mat.

In the control version, elephants would rarely step off the mat before passing the stick, but when the two were tied together, elephants would step off the mat before passing the stick. This might seem like a simple task, but its implications run quite deep.

“This is a deceptively simple test, but its implications are quite profound,” says Dr Plotnik. “The elephants understood that their bodies were getting in the way, so they stepped aside to enable themselves to complete the task. In a similar test, this is something that young children are unable to understand until they are about two years old.

“This implies that elephants may be capable of recognising themselves as separate from objects or their environment. This means that they may have a level of self-understanding, coupled with their passing of the mirror test, which is quite rare in the animal kingdom.”

Furthermore, this solidifies the status of elephants as intelligent creatures. Plotnik argues that studies such as this are important to help us understand how intelligent other animals are, and increase our appreciation of them. In 2011, he conducted a different study showing that elephants often work together to solve problems. His research is a solid indication that we may have been underselling elephant intelligence for years.

“Elephants are well regarded as one of the most intelligent animals on the planet, but we still need more empirical, scientific evidence to support this belief,” says Dale. “We know, for example, that they are capable of thoughtful cooperation and empathy, and are able to recognise themselves in a mirror. These abilities are highly unusual in animals and very rare indeed in non-primates. We wanted to see if they also show ‘body-awareness’.”

Journal Reference: Dale, R, and Plotnik, JM — Elephants know when their bodies are obstacles to success in a novel transfer task. Scientific Reports; 12 April 2017; DOI: 10.1038/srep46309

Wild elephants need only two hours of sleep — that’s the lowest duration of sleep for any animal

Animal behaviorists have always known elephants sleep very little but a new study which tracked dozing wild African savannah elephants showed they stay awake for more time than any other animal. The elephants tracked by researchers at University of Witswatersrand, South Africa, slept on average only two hours each day.

Credit: pixabay

Paul Manger, a research professor at the University of Witwatersrand, has been studying sleep in non-human animals for more than two decades. Thanks to his work we now know how much sleep animals like dolphins, whales, cats or antelopes get. As a nice trivia, Manger was the first to study how the platypus sleeps and found it gets more rapid eye movement (REM) sleep — the phase of sleep when we dream — than any other studied animal. Dreamy platypuses –now that’s a popular science book I’d love to read.

The shortest sleepers in the animal kingdom

Concerning elephants, scientists have previously established they sleep between three and seven hours a day. Studying sleep in captive and wild animals is a whole different ball game, though. A captive animal is fed by keepers and doesn’t need to worry about predators. For instance, studies on captive sloths showed these sleep for 16 hours and people ran with that seeing how they already have a reputation for, you know, being sloths. A follow-up study of wild sloths, however, showed these slept for far less — about 10 hours each day or right on par with yours truly.

To study wild elephant sleeping habits, Manger and colleague Nadine Gravett strapped actiwatches to the trunks of the animals. These are like Fitbit bracelets only instead of monitoring sports performance, these are used to assess a subject’s sleep/wake pattern and activity in response to therapy. The researchers could deduce the animals were asleep if the actiwatch showed the trunk was still for more than five minutes. That’s how the duo eventually found wild elephants sleep mostly standing and in four to five bursts throughout the day summing no more than two hours.

In mammals, REM sleep happens only when the muscles are relaxed. Besides facilitating awesome dreams, the REM stage is thought to be critical for memory consolidation and rejuvenating the body. But the present findings suggest elephants get little or no REM sleep seeing how they doze for only two hours, and even then while standing most of the time and in short bursts. Despite this, elephants seem very functional and intelligent to boast which raises questions about the role of REM sleep — we might be overestimating its importance.

“If it is true that the elephant only experiences REM sleep when recumbent, then the findings of the current study indicate that the elephant will only enter REM sleep on every third or fourth day on average. As described above, both wild elephants only experienced recumbent sleep for 10 out of the 35 days of recording, limiting their potential opportunities to enter REM sleep if this only occurs during recumbency. This would then indicate a very different way of obtaining the necessary amount of REM sleep in the elephant compared to that seen in other mammals studied to date, with REM sleep not occurring each day,” the reserachers concluded in their paper.

There are a couple of caveats we should mention. For one, the study only included two subjects. Secondly, both elephants are matriarchs meaning they devote most of their waking hours to rearing young calves and protecting them from predators like savannah lions. It’s possible less solicited elephants sleep more.

Some might also be surprised to learn that such big animals like elephants need so little sleep. You should know, however, that science establishes that, as a rule of thumb, the smaller the animal the more sleep it needs and vice-versa.  Small bats, chipmunks, and opossums all sleep for 15 hours or more per day. In contrast, the domestic horse sleeps for only three hours a day, which makes it the next shortest sleep behind that of elephants. That’s because larger animals need to stay awake more to find food.

“Larger animals need more food to keep their bodies fueled,” Manger explains. “The elephant, which can eat several hundred kilograms of low-quality food each day, devotes a lot of time to eating, leaving less time for sleep.”

Findings appeared in the journal PLOS ONE.

These animals don’t get cancer, and this might help us obtain a cutre

In the fight with cancer, we need any piece of help we can get. With this in mind, a group of researchers set out to investigate the animals that don’t get cancer (or rarely do) – especially elephants and naked mole rats.

Image via Wikipedia.

 

At a first glance, it seems strange that elephants don’t get cancer. After all, cancer is basically a mutation of a group of cells, and elephants have way more cells than humans, but on average, only 1 in 20 elephants get cancer, compared to 1 in 5 for humans. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a correlation between cancer occurrence and the number of cells, otherwise bigger animals would get cancer more often, and this doesn’t happen. So why are elephants special?

A team of researchers in the US looked closer and found an abundance of a gene called TP53 which they believe is important for cancer. The gene has been documented and is known for its ability to repair damaged DNA and thus halt the spread of cancer. Humans also have it, but elephants have it 20 times more; it’s an interesting correlation, although likely to be only one piece of the puzzle.

“These findings, if replicated, could represent an evolutionary-based approach for understanding mechanisms related to cancer suppression,” says the report, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

These strange mole rats are immune to cancer. Image via Flickr.

Naked mole rats are even more surprising: they never develop cancer, even when researchers try to induce it in a lab. Their natural mechanisms are just good at fighting cancer, at least according to a recent study. These natural mechanisms include a polymer called hyaluronan; the thickness of this polymer controls a number of cell parameters, including cell growth and mechanical strength. Researchers had a hunch this polymer was preventing the spread of cancer, so they eliminated it – and then the cancer spread as it does in other organisms – which seems to indicate that hyaluronan is crucial for fighting cancer.

“We speculate that naked mole rats have evolved a higher concentration of hyaluronan in the skin to provide skin elasticity needed for life in underground tunnels,” reads the separate report, published in Nature. “This trait may have then been co-opted to provide cancer resistance and longevity to this species.”

It’s a long shot, and it’s not yet known if this can work in humans, but studying animals that do well against cancer definitely seems like a good idea. It’s a big biological jump, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

 

Journalist Uses GPS Trackers and Fake Elephant Tusks to Reveal Smuggling Route

Every year, over 30,000 elephants are murdered, slaughtered for their tusks. Ivory is an extremely valuable commodity, and many people will stop at nothing to get it and sell it. With this in mind, investigative journalist Bryan Christy set out to see what the smuggling route is, so he commissioned a taxidermist to create two fake ivory tusks, which he embedded with GPS trackers.

Image via Doubtful News.

“These tusks … operate really like additional investigators, like members of our team, and almost like a robocop,” Christy said in an interview.

Between 2010 and 2012, over 100,000 elephants were killed in Africa, a study found. China is the biggest market for illegal ivory, and despite some efforts and new DNA tracking technology, things aren’t looking too good.

“China is the biggest consumer of illegal ivory. … Just a few years ago [China] purchased 60 tons of ivory from Africa, and it was that purchase that unleashed the notion that ivory is on the market again,” he says.

Image credits: Brent Stirton.

Christy and his team managed to track the smugglers as they transported the tusks north from Congo’s Garamba National Park to Sudan. Much of the ivory ends up in the Darfur area of Sudan before heading for China. His article about tracking the ivory of African elephants is the cover story of National Geographic Magazine’s September 2015 issue. The National Geographic Channel documentary Warlords of Ivory also reports on his efforts.

The brutality of the poachers is without limits. They’re killing animals in every manner conceivable: using AK-47s, poisoning waterholes, using poison spears, poison arrows; and it’s not just the elephants getting killed: in 2013 alone, over 1,000 park rangers were killed while attempting to defend African elephants from poachers.

But just as guilty are the people driving up the demand: they are the real problem, for without them, a market wouldn’t exist, and poachers would have no reason to poach. If you know someone who owns or would like to own ivory, do talk to them about this problem and let them know how it is actually obtained.

woolly mammoth

Woolly Mammoth genome sequencing makes cloning a lot more doable

A team at University of Chicago made the most comprehensive woolly mammoth genome sequencing ever. By comparing its genome with that of its distant cousins, the Asian and African elephants, the researchers were able to determine which are the mammoth’s specific genes. These were ran with libraries and repositories to identify what these do. We now know which of mammoth’s gene shaped its uncanny skull and small ears, how it got hair to cover all its body or how the mammoth adapted a special fat metabolism and cold coping mechanism. To test their findings, the researchers transplanted a mammoth gene into a human cell. The kidney cell produced new proteins which were tolerant to heat or cold, as suspected showing their other genetic determinations are also likely correct.

woolly mammoth

Image: Technopedia

What the mammoth

This isn’t the first time a mammoth’s genome was sequenced, of course. However, these previous efforts were error-prone and yielded only limited results .This is natural after all, since we’re working with DNA from a creature which went extinct some 10,000 years ago. The last ice most likely killed off the mammoth which roamed the frigid tundra steppes of northern Asia, Europe and North America. On the bright side, the ice age helped keep mammoth specimens in the “freezer” helping preserve whole tissue and even mammoth blood. The cold, however, damages DNA and sequencing the genomic data can be a lot like retrieving data from a hard drive with “bad” sectors. You can fill in the gaps, but only so much.

Vincent Lynch, PhD, assistant professor of human genetics at the University of Chicago used new techniques to sequence the whole genomes of two woolly mammoths and three Asian elephants, which are the closest living relatives of the mammoth. The two genomes were then compared against each other. The genome of the African elephant, a more evolutionary distant relative of both species, was also added to the mix.

The researchers identified 1.4 million genetic variants unique to woolly mammoths, which caused changes in the proteins produced by 1,600 genes. Proteins are basically what signal physical growth, change and function. Thus, mammoth genes were identified that are involved in fat metabolism (including brown fat regulation), insulin signaling, skin and hair development (including genes associated with lighter hair color), temperature sensation and circadian clock biology. These are all highly important in helping the mammoth adapt to Arctic temperatures.

“This is by far the most comprehensive study to look at the genetic changes that make a a woolly mammoth,” said study author Vincent Lynch, PhD, assistant professor of human genetics at the University of Chicago. “They are an excellent model to understand how morphological evolution works, because mammoths are so closely related to living elephants, which have none of the traits they had.”

To make sure they did their job right, the researchers used ancestral sequence reconstruction techniques to “resurrect” the mammoth version of one of these genes, TRPV3, then implanted it into a human kidney cell. The TRPV3 gene produced a protein that was less responsive to temperature than the modern elephant ancestral version. So it seems likely that TRPV3 was also important for mammoth cold tolerance. Findings appeared in Cell Reports.

Resurrecting a fallen beast

Naturally, the better the genome sequencing, the better the chances of a mammoth cloning working well. Some researchers think this is total nonsense and won’t even happen, but there are research groups around the world that are working on making the very first ancient creature resurrection. The scientific challenges are quite difficult to overcome, though. For instance, Harvard University researchers are now filling the gaps in poor mammoth genome sequences with elephant DNA. The better the genome, the better the odds that a live, functional mammoth might be born alive. But will it be a mammoth in the first place? It’s hard to tell.

“We can’t know with absolute certainty the effects of these genes unless someone resurrects a complete woolly mammoth, but we can try to infer by doing experiments in the laboratory,” Lynch said.

“Eventually we’ll be technically able to do it. But the question is: if you’re technically able to do something, should you do it?” he said. “I personally think no. Mammoths are extinct and the environment in which they lived has changed. There are many animals on the edge of extinction that we should be helping instead.”

To keep the ivory from the black market, a plainclothes ranger hacks the tusks off a bull elephant killed illegally in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. In the first half of this year six park rangers died protecting Kenya’s elephants; meanwhile, rangers killed 23 poachers. Photograph by Brent Stirton

Tracing Ivory DNA helps curb massive poaching that’s killing 1 in 10 elephants each year

We seem to be losing the war on elephant poachers, but a new toolset that involves tracing slaughter hotspots in Africa based on DNA taken from ivory might be exactly what law enforcement needed all these years. This way, researchers at University of Washington, in collaboration with INTERPOL, found that most of the ivory seized since 2006 originates in just two areas.

To keep the ivory from the black market, a plainclothes ranger hacks the tusks off a bull elephant killed illegally in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. In the first half of this year six park rangers died protecting Kenya’s elephants; meanwhile, rangers killed 23 poachers. Photograph by Brent Stirton

To keep the ivory from the black market, a plainclothes ranger hacks the tusks off a bull elephant killed illegally in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. In the first half of this year six park rangers died protecting Kenya’s elephants; meanwhile, rangers killed 23 poachers. Photograph by Brent Stirton

Since some  portions of genetic material are known to be held only by elephants in specific geographic areas, DNA can be effectively used to locate where samples come from. In this case, the researchers analyzed about a half-ton of ivory confiscated in Africa and Asia between 1996 and 2014  and found more than 85 percent of forest elephant ivory seized since 2006 could be traced back to an area that spans northeastern Gabon, northwestern Republic of Congo, southeastern Cameroon and the southwestern Central African Republic. About 85 percent of ivory that came from savannah elephants, the larger of the two African elephant subspecies, could be traced back to southeastern Tanzania and northern Mozambique.

Forest elephant seizures from 2006-2014 were largely assigned to the TRIDOM in NE Gabon, NW Congo-Brazzaville and SE Cameroon and neighboring Dzanga Sanga in SW CAR.

Forest elephant seizures from 2006-2014 were largely assigned to the TRIDOM in NE Gabon, NW Congo-Brazzaville and SE Cameroon and neighboring Dzanga Sanga in SW CAR.

Between 2010 and 2012, some 100,00 African elephants have been poached to source their precious ivory. Most it ends up on the Chinese black market, and as the country’s wealthy populace has soared in the past couple of years, so has the blood trade.  In 2013, estimates suggest some 50,000 elephants were killed. Considering there are only about 450,000 elephants left this means  one year’s killing spree at more than 11 percent of all African elephants left on earth. At this rate, in just a couple of decades there might not be any more wild elephants – not enough to make conservation efforts sustainable.

Savanna elephant seizures from 2006-2014 were largely assigned to SE Tanzania and adjacent northern Mozambique, but eventually shifted northward within Tanzania.

Savanna elephant seizures from 2006-2014 were largely assigned to SE Tanzania and adjacent northern Mozambique, but eventually shifted northward within Tanzania.

“When you’re losing a tenth of the population a year, you have to do something more urgent – nail down where the major killing is happening and stop it at the source,” Wasser said. “Hopefully our results will force the primary source countries to accept more responsibility for their part in this illegal trade, encourage the international community to work closely with these countries to contain the poaching, and these actions will choke the criminal networks that enable this transnational organized crime to operate.”

Armed with this valuable information, local and international law enforcement might want to concentrate their efforts in these key areas and improve security. What’s interesting is that this technique can be extended to other highly poached animals, like rhinos. It’s an uphill battle, though. Priced at $2,000 per kilo, ivory is a prized commodity and many poor locals are willing to take their chances and even risk losing their lives. The poachers are very organized and often act in cahoots with local authorities which they bribe or share spoils.

woolly mammoth

Woolly mammoth and modern elephant DNA merged. Next, cloning

Cloning the woolly mammoth is a life long dream for many geneticists and biologists, but the challenges are numerous. Now, we’ve come a step closer after researchers replaced snips of elephant DNA with those from the woolly mammoth. The changes they’ve made so far are stable, and even though there’s still much work ahead, little by little scientists are building the mammoth’s genome one piece at a time. Next stop: actually cloning the mammoth, effectively resurrecting the species back from the dead.

woolly mammoth

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The last mammoth likely lived 3,200 years ago. Some scholars believe that their extinction was driven by excessive hunting, but there’s a growing consensus that humans alone weren’t to blame. Instead, a combination of factors likely lead to their demise, most important of which was climate change. While the ice age killed the poorly adapted mammoths, thanks to it we at least now have a  myriad of extremely well conserved specimens.  For instance, a team of international researchers uncovered a 43,000 year old female from the Siberian tundra which still had well conserved muscles, kidneys and even blood! A team member was actually quoted as saying the decomposition was less severe than a six months old carcass.

While DNA can survive for a long while under the ‘freezer’, it’s far from being perfect. In other words, it’s impractical for cloning purposes, since many bits and pieces have been damaged by the environment. This is why so many are skeptical of so called mammoth cloning. “C’mon, it’ll never happen. Not in my lifetime,” said Webb Miller, a Penn State computer scientist and genomicist who helped decipher the genetic code of a woolly mammoth.

Yes, sure, but what if you piece it together? This is what George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard University, and colleagues have been doing for the last couple of years. Using a novel technique they’ve replaced sections of elephant DNA with the mammoth genes. Since the two species are very similar, the reasoning is to only piece together those pieces that are distinct. For instance, those genes that code body hair or the longer ears.

“We now have functioning elephant cells with mammoth DNA in them. We have not published it in a scientific journal because there is more work to do, but we plan to do so,” Church said.

Church’s efforts are only the last to come to attention. At least three other team are working independently to clone to mammoth. As to Church’s research, there are a lot of loose ends that, to me at least, look very challenging if not impossible to fix. First of all, are they certain they can find the function of all the mammoth genes they’ve uncovered so far? If they do clone a so-called mammoth, will it be a mammoth in the first place or just a hybrid? Nevertheless, it would be a fantastic scientific achievement. Yes, there are critics who argue this is not only useless, but unethical. Why clone an extinct species, when we can barely avert extinction today! A while ago, I reported  a new analysis conducted by Nature which found that 41% of all amphibians on the planet now face extinction while 26% of mammal species and 13% of birds are similarly threatened. Even more species might become at risk, arguably, once an extinct species is resurfaced through cloning since extinction itself would become far less dramatic. “You can always bring it back.” But why renounce such a powerful tool? Yes, humans have been and are still highly irresponsible, but at least…we’re trying to fix it. Some of us at least.

Why the most expensive coffee in the world is ingested and then defecated

There are many types of coffee in the world, and the price can vary greatly. But the most expensive types of coffee are the ones that have been ingested and defecated. What makes this process so special? The answer, as usual with foods and beverages — is chemistry.

Digested coffee

Civet Coffee

A civet in the wild. Image via Wikipedia.

Kopi luwak, or civet coffee, refers to the seeds of coffee berries that have been eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet. It’s also the market name for the coffee made from these beans. A kilogram of Kopi luwak costs over $200 at the very least, and generally goes at about $700.

The coffee berries are fed to civets — nocturnal mammal native to the tropical forests of Asia and Africa. The civets eat the berries, digest them, and then defecate. It is believed that the digestive process of the civets improves the quality and flavor of the coffee beans. Fermentation occurs in their bellies. Producers argue that this process improves coffee beans through two processes:

  1. selection; if given the possibility, the civets only eat the best berries which will result in the best beans
  2. fermentation; the civet’s Protease enzymes seep into the beans, making shorter peptides and more free amino acids, significantly changing the taste.

However, despite these claims, few objective assessments of taste are available, because the process of coffee production involves many steps (collection, roasting, aging, and brewing), and the health of the civet is also a significant factor which can alter the taste.

Elephant coffee

Elephants, unlike humans or civets, are herbivores. The fermentation happening in their gut as they break down cellulose helps remove the bitterness in the coffee beans. Here, an elephant receives medical treatment from the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation.
Michael Sullivan/NPR

But while civet coffee used to be the most expensive option out there, the crows was recently taken by Black Ivory Coffee – a type of coffee consumed and defecated by elephants. However, while it costs over $1,100 per kilo, Black Ivory coffee has very limited availability, being sold only at a few luxury hotels and clubs, where the price is $50 for a cup.  The high price of the product is largely due to the high amount of coffee cherries needed to produce the finished product:33 kilograms (72 pounds) of raw coffee cherries result in 1 kilogram (2 pounds) of the finished product. Most of the beans are not recoverable because they are chewed by the elephants.

There are also reports of similar processes occurring naturally with muntjacs and some species of birds.

What the science says

A civet eating coffee berries. Image via Wikipedia.

It’s clear for everybody that eating digested coffee should be different from eating… undigested coffee. But how exactly does this alter the taste? Several studies have examined the process in which the animal’s stomach acids and enzymes digest the beans’ covering and ferment the beans. The main thing is that the bitterness of the coffee is greatly reduced by the enzymes in the civet’s (or elephant’s) stomach. These secretions also carry proteolytic enzymes which break down the beans’ proteins.

Research by food scientist Massimo Marcone at the University of Guelph in Ontario, found that there are, indeed, significant differences in the taste and flavor of the coffee. His main conclusions were:

  1. Protein structure had been altered, reducing bitterness and potentially impacting flavor.
  2. Volatile compounds had significant differences compared to regular coffee, indicating there are changes in flavor.

According to his research, these changes also eliminate or greatly reduce coffee’s diuretic effect.

Controversy and animal welfare

Despite the general appreciation and the huge prices paid for elephant or civet coffee, there is also great controversy surrounding this technique. While the coffee is sold at a huge price, collectors in the Philippines only get about $20 per kilogram.

Civet in a cage - tens of thousands of civets live in extremely cruel conditions. Image via Wikipedia.

Civet in a cage – tens of thousands of civets live in extremely cruel conditions. Image via Wikipedia.

Also, while initially civet coffee beans were picked from wild civet excrement found around coffee plantations, opportunistic people started building “civet farms”, confining tens of thousands of animals to live in battery cage. They are force fed, unhealthy, and live in extremely cruel conditions. There is also the problem that most people don’t know about this – the general awareness is very low regarding the conditions in which the civets live.

‘”The conditions are awful, much like battery chickens”, said Chris Shepherd, deputy regional director of the conservation NGO, TRAFFIC southeast Asia. “The civets are taken from the wild and have to endure horrific conditions. They fight to stay together but they are separated and have to bear a very poor diet in very small cages. There is a high mortality rate and for some species of civet, there’s a real conservation risk. It’s spiralling out of control. But there’s not much public awareness of how it’s actually made. People need to be aware that tens of thousands of civets are being kept in these conditions. It would put people off their coffee if they knew”‘.

So, if you do want to taste this exquisite coffee, please be sure that it was harvested from civets in the wild, and not from civet farms. Don’t put a taint on what is otherwise a delicious and creatively obtained beverage.

Elephant Tree by Shai Biran

Elephant overhunting kills Tropical Forest as well in cascading effect

We’re used to hearing how elephants are driven off by habitat lost, but never the other way around. Researchers at University of Florida claim that as overhunting has dramatically cut the number of elephants in the wild, but since these also disperse seeds, it seems like dominant tree species are also dying off. Along with the trees, other forest life is sure to follow in a dramatic cascading effect.

Elephants and trees, what’s the connection?

Elephant Tree by Shai Biran

Elephantree by Shai Biran

“The entire ecosystem is at risk,” said Trevor Caughlin, a UF postdoctoral student and National Science Foundation fellow. “My hope for this study is that it will provide a boost for those trying to curb overhunting and provide incentives to stop the wildlife trade.”

In a first of its kind study, Caughlin and colleagues  spent three years gathering tree data in Thailand. The researchers focused their study on trees that either grew in crowded environments around a parent tree or those that sprouted far away from the parent and whose seeds were broadcasted by animals; like elephants.

In Thailand, as in other neighboring countries, the elephant is revered as an important spiritual, cultural and national symbol. Despite this, elephants in Thailand today only number 2,000, a dramatic fall from the over 100,000 that could be found at the turn of the 20th century. Hunting and poaching are to blame, spurred by increase demand for ivory. The same fate seems to dwell on other animals such as tigers, monkeys and civet cats.

[AMAZING] The elephant bird: the largest bird to have ever lived

Using the data they gathered in Thailand, in conjunction with a dataset from the Thai Royal Forest Department that contained more than 15 years of data on trees, the team performed a simulation on UF’s supercomputer, HiPerGator. The long-term rundown shows that trees that grow from seeds transported over long distances by animals are sturdier and live longer.

“Previously, it’s been unclear what role seed dispersal plays in tree population dynamics,” Caughlin said. “A tree makes millions of seeds during its lifetime, and only one of those seeds needs to survive to replace the parent tree. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like seed dispersal would be that important for tree population. What we found with this study is that seed dispersal has an impact over the whole life of a tree.”

This was the first study that documented animal seed dispersal across a tree’s entire life cycle, from seeds, to seedlings to adult trees. Hopefully, the findings will provide an additional much needed incentive for local authorities to stiffen measures against overhunting and animal trading.

[RELATED] 100,000 elephants killed in Africa between 2010 and 2012, study finds

Richard Corlett, director of the Center for Integrative Conservation at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Gardens in Yunnan, China, underscored the study’s importance.

“This study fills a major gap in our understanding of how overhunting affects forest trees, particularly in tropical forests,” he said. “We knew hunting was bad, but we were not sure why it was bad, and therefore could not predict the long-term impacts. Now we know it is really, really bad and will get worse. The message that ‘guns kill trees too’ should help put overhunting at the top of the conservation agenda, where it deserves to be.”

Findings appeared in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

100,000 elephants killed in Africa between 2010 and 2012, study finds

Elephant numbers are dwindling, with over 100.000 elephants being killed in Africa between 2010 and 2012. Image via AP.

Most societies in Africa are leading an uphill battle in their attempt to ensure safety, good health and food security. But for African animals, it’s even worse. Poachers alone killed an estimated 100,000 elephants across Africa between 2010 and 2012, raising new concerns about the species’ survival.

Poaching in Africa is huge – the term ‘crisis’ has rarely been used more appropriately. The unprecedented spike in illegal wildlife trade, threatens to overturn what conservation efforts were slowly starting to achieve in the past decades. For example, although there is no scientific proof of its medical value, rhino horn is highly prized in traditional Asian medicine, and due to this, rhinos are now on the brink of extinction. Recent estimates show that if current trends continue, rhinos could go extinct by 2020. Let me phrase that in a different way, so you can get a better sense of the absurdity – one of the world’s most iconic species will likely go extinct in our lifetime, for a “medicinal” property which it doesn’t even have! The Western Black Rhino is was already driven to extinction, and soon, its relatives could follow.

WIldAid teamed up with Chinese basketball player Yao Ming for this campaign against ivory trade.

As you will probably guess, elephants are hunted for the ivory. Again, we’re dealing with one of the most iconic and well known species on the face of the Earth. A species known for its intelligence, kindness and ability to cooperate is being wiped out to be old as body parts, mostly on the Chinese black market. While the rhino horn has reached a mind blowing price of $30,000 per pound (almost $14,000 per kilo), ivory is estimated at $1,000 per pound (over $2,000 per kilo) – a huge price, especially when considering that no one actually needs an elephant’s tusk – except himself.

Warnings about massive elephant slaughters have been going on for years and years now, but until now, there has been no study to quantify the effects of massive poaching. Keep in mind, poaching in Africa is not one or a few guys with guns going out to kill elephants. Poaching has become so organized and well funded, that we’re talking about well organized criminal organizations and even militia. The study found that the proportion of illegally killed elephants has climbed from 25 percent of all elephant deaths a decade ago to roughly 65 percent of all elephant deaths today, a trend which if continued, will lead to the complete wipe of the species. All in all, they found that over 100.000 elephants have been killed between 2010 and 2012, and the number is continuously growing.

Two-month-old orphaned baby elephant Ajabu is given a dust-bath in the red earth after being fed milk from a bottle by a keeper, at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya. A new study released Monday Aug. 18, 2014, by lead author George Wittemye of Colorado State University, found that the proportion of illegally killed elephants has climbed to about 65 percent of all elephant deaths. Image via AP.

It’s estimated that there are as many as 700,000 elephants in Africa, but this is the total of two different species: the African bush elephant and the smaller African forest elephant. However losing either, but especially both, would be a major loss to the ecosystems and tourist economies throughout Africa. Unfortunately, the numbers for the Asian elephant are much smaller.

“The current demand for ivory is unsustainable. That is our overarching conclusion. It must come down. Otherwise the elephants will continue to decrease,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants.

Early this year, nearly 450 elephants were slaughtered in Cameroon’s Bouba N’Djida National Park, representing close to 10% of the country’s remaining elephant population, but that’s nothing! Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve dropped from 40,000 to 13,000 over the last three years. Botswana seems to be the only place where elephant populations have maintained stable or increased, but that’s only because poachers haven’t yet started their activities there – which they almost definitely will in the near future.

As mentioned earlier, China is the main demand market for the ivory. Chinese Ambassador in Kenya Liu Xianfa is aware of this, and he claims efforts are being made to limit the damage.

“Wildlife crimes are a cross-border menace,” Liu said, according to a transcript of the ceremony published by Kenya’s Capital FM. “I assure you that more action will follow as will support to fulfil our promise. We firmly believe that, through joint efforts, the drive of combating wildlife crimes will achieve success.”

In this Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013 file photo, a Maasai boy and his dog stand near the skeleton of an elephant killed by poachers outside of Arusha, Tanzania. Image via AP.

Even though elephant numbers are plummeting, researchers are still optimistic. They say that where conservation efforts have been thoroughly planned an implemented, the results are visible. Sadly, it’s almost certain that more and more elephants will be killed, but the species has good chances of survival lead author George Wittemye of Colorado State University believes:

“I have to be an optimist,” he said. “I’ve been through all of this before in the 70s and 80s. As a collective group we stopped that killing, and in the savannahs there was a reprieve of 20 years. I believe we can do it again.”

Elephants also survived a massive poaching crisis in the 1970s and 1980s, when Japan fueled the demand for ivory.  In 1989 the Convention of the International Trade of Flora and Fauna (CITES) abandoned attempts at regulation and passed a ban on international trade in ivory. Japan has since greatly reduce its ivory market, and initially, the law was a huge success, but legal ivory sales made way for illegal ivory sales… and here we are.