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African Elephants Evolved Tusklessness Amazingly Fast

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Shane Campbell-Staton never planned on traveling to Mozambique in search of tuskless elephants, but weird things can happen when you stay up ’til 3 a.m. binge-watching YouTube videos. (“Sometimes, a brother can’t get to sleep, Ed,” he told me.)

Battling insomnia, Campbell-Staton watched a video about Gorongosa National Park. The park was once Edenic, but during Mozambique’s civil war, from 1977 to 1992, much of its wildlife was exterminated. Government troops and resistance fighters slaughtered 90 percent of Gorongosa’s elephants, selling their ivory to buy arms and supplies. Naturally, tuskless females, which are normally rare, were more likely to survive the culls; after the war, their unusual trait was noticeably common.

Campbell-Staton, a biologist at Princeton who studies rapid evolution, had questions. Was this a dramatic example of natural selection in action? Why only the females? Which genes were involved? He idly emailed his questions to a colleague who studies elephants, inadvertently setting off a chain of emails that recast his casual curiosity as serious intent, and soon found himself being introduced to a large group of Gorongosa researchers as “a guy who wants to study the genetic basis of tusklessness in elephants,” he told me. In response to which he thought: Wait a minute, I didn’t say that! I didn’t mean for this to be a whole thing. He had only ever worked with small anole lizards, but even so, when one of those researchers invited him to Gorongosa, he said yes.

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A tuskless female elephant and her calfJacques Le Roux / iStock / Getty

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Click the link below for the article:

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2021/10/elephants-poaching-war-tusklessness/620447/

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