War elephant myths debunked by DNA

January 09, 2014

Through DNA analysis, Illinois researchers have disproved decades of rumors and hearsay surrounding the ancient Battle of Raphia, the only known battle between Asian and African elephants.

"What everyone thinks about war elephants is wrong," said Alfred Roca, a professor of animal sciences and member of the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who led the research published in the Journal of Heredity.

Over the years, there has been a lot of speculation about a Greek Historian's account of the battle between Ptolemy IV, the King of Egypt, and Antiochus III the Great, the King of the Seleucid kingdom, in which the African elephants (obtained by ancient Egyptians from what is today the country of Eritrea) were said to be smaller than the Asian elephants.

"Until well into the 19th century the ancient accounts were taken as fact by all modern natural historians and scientists and that is why Asian elephants were given the name Elephas maximus," said Neal Benjamin, an Illinois veterinary student who studies elephant taxonomy and ancient literature with Roca. "After the scramble for Africa by European nations, more specimens became available and it became clearer that African elephants were mostly larger than Asian elephants. At this point, speculation began about why the African elephants in the Polybius account might have been smaller. One scientist, Paules Deraniyagala, even suggested that they might even have been an extinct smaller subspecies."

In 1948, Sir William Gowers reasoned that Ptolemy must have fought with forest elephants that fled from larger Asian elephants, as the Greek Historian described. Since then, the idea has been cited and re-cited in many papers.

Until now, the main question remained: Did Ptolemy employ African savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) or African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) in the Battle or Raphia?

"Using three different markers, we established that the Eritrean elephants are actually savanna elephants," said Adam Brandt, a doctoral candidate in Roca's laboratory and first author of the paper. "Their DNA was very similar to neighboring populations of East African savanna elephants but with very low genetic diversity, which was expected for such a small, isolated population."

The markers also revealed that these Eritrean elephants have no genetic ties to forest or Asian elephants, as other authorities have suggested. Roca and Brandt hope their findings will aid conservation efforts.

"We have confirmed that this population is isolated and may be inbred," Brandt said. "This population will require habitat restoration and preservation to minimize the possibility of human conflict. That's really the issue--not having a place to go."
-end-
For the full article, with quotes from Polybius' account and more, please visit http://www.igb.illinois.edu/news/war-elephant-myths-debunked-dna.

The paper "The Elephants of Gash-Barka, Eritrea: Nuclear and Mitochondrial Genetic Patterns" was published in the Journal of Heredity and is available at http://jhered.oxfordjournals.org/content/105/1/82.

This research was supported by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, a government agency that is committed to protecting, preserving, and enhancing the world's diverse wildlife and their habitats. The late Jeheskel Shoshani, an evolutionary biologist and world-renowned elephant specialist, was instrumental in this research.

Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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