Speck of Science 12/1/16 – How Elephants Are Losing Their Tusks

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Small-tusked elephant, source: African Wildlife Foundation

Nature has a fickle way of removing the wheat from the chaff. When organisms are less suited to survival, their chances of lasting long enough to reproduce may be in serious jeopardy. If the deleterious traits are genetic in nature, then there is limited chance they will be handed off to future generations. We call this process natural selection.

One example proving that humans can act as a shaping force similar to mother nature by chiseling the genetic outlook  of a creature is presented in this recent Independent article.The piece describes how African elephants in some regions are being born with smaller tusks or entirely without them, presumably in response to the selective pressure of poaching. While there always have been an elephant here or there born without tusks, the preferential culling of ivory has increased the prevalence of tuskless elephants.

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Photo credit: National Geographic

However, as Snopes suggests (not a source I was expecting to comment on the issue), this particular phenomenon has been noted and written about for years prior. A 1995 paper published in the African Journal of Ecology noted in Queen Elizabeth National Park had jumped from 3-4% up to 9-25%. Collectively in South Luangwa National Park and nearby Lupande Game Management Area, the change was from 10% up to 38% in a 20 year period.

While elephants may be the charismatic mascot for poaching issues, undoubtedly it is an issue that for a multitude of animal species reverberates well beyond just their population size and deeply into the very tapestry of their DNA.

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Speck of Science – 1/11/2016: The Co-evolution of Poachers

I’m a little late in posting about this story that came out in the Guardian on New Year’s Day.

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Colour changing tree monitors or garden lizards annd Bronze skinks hung in a street market to be sold as pets in Hainan province, China. Photograph: Xiao Shibai/Alamy

The gist of the piece is that the journal Zootaxa has published recent papers omitting the data on where the described species may be found. This is to deter impact to these newly described organisms, after several incidences where animals were depleted or found for offer in the pet trade. This goes to show that seemingly the most innocuous and standard scientific practices (in this case, the standard documentation and provision of data surrounding the description of newly identified species) may still warrant ethical considerations.

This also represents an interesting and alarming co-evolution of illegal or unregulated poaching practices. But this is just a drop in the poaching bucket, as poachers have already clearly upped their game in recent years, arming themselves with high-tech equipment like night vision goggles. However, there is a whole range of combatant technologies emerging for use in the anti-poaching effort being billed as “smarter ways to fight wildlife crime.”