A recent study published in Ecology and Evolution showed that the DNA of Namibian desert elephants is the same as elephants in the Namibian savanna. Since these two groups of elephants act so differently from one another, it was assumed for years that they were totally separate elephant groups. This study both demolishes that old assumption and attempts to increase conservation efforts for elephants in the desert.
The researchers for this study looked at both the nuclear and mitochondrial DNA in Namibian elephants. Only the elephants of the Caprivi Strip, a small area of land bordering Botswana and Zimbabwe, had a totally different DNA structure. The elephants on the Caprivi Strip actually had mitochondrial DNA much closer to the elephants found in those two bordering countries. Other than that, both savanna and desert dwelling elephants in Namibia had the same DNA.
Alfred Roca, a professor at the University of Illinois and a lead author in this study, noted that the desert elephants had to make major adjustments to their environment to survive. In this case, the environment played a much larger role in conditioning the behavior of the desert dwelling elephants versus those in the savanna.
Some theories on how these elephants expanded so far include longer migrations, male elephants increasingly breeding with different female groups, and larger home ranges.
The Namibian desert elephants learned to combat overheating by regurgitating water from a large pouch in their tongue, covering themselves with urine-soaked sand, and developing a better memory of food and water sources throughout their home range. Namibian desert elephants also contribute to the ecology of the desert region by digging watering holes and creating paths.
As a final note, Alfred Roca stressed the importance of increasing conservation efforts for desert-dwelling elephants. Since all of these desert survival skills can’t be passed along via DNA, it is crucial to preserve the few elephant families that have successfully adapted to this region.
Roca specifically worries about poachers wiping out desert elephants. There has been a lot of new propaganda spreading around Africa that desert elephants are more valuable and larger than other elephants. If poachers do wipe out this important group of elephants, all the hard-fought years of developing survival strategies may be irrevocably lost. It is of crucial importance to watch over the desert-dwelling Namibian elephants so they can pass on their knowledge to future generations.