Ancient elephants in the Near East – DNA shows close evolutionary lineage to modern Asian elephants

Lay summary authored by Linus Girdland-Flink, Ebru Albayrak and Adrian M Lister. Their full paper can be read in Open Quaternary: http://doi.org/10.5334/oq.36

Asian elephants (Elephas maximus L. 1758) were once found across a much wider geographic area than they are today. Whereas modern populations are restricted to small pockets across Southeast Asia they once lived across an area that extended through most of southeastern Asia, all the way to Turkey and the Levant in western Eurasia. Unfortunately, fossil remains of elephants that lived outside of today’s range are very rare and we know little about their relatedness to living elephants in Southeast Asia. It has even been suggested that Asian elephants that once lived in the area today comprising countries such as Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel constituted its own sub-species: E. maximus asurus or the Syrian elephant. The Syrian elephant, whether actually constituting its own sub-species or not, went extinct around 2000 years ago.

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Fig 1. A partially reconstructed skull of Elephas maximus from Gavur Lake Swamp (MTA Natural History Museum, Ankara)

 New research by a team of scientists led by Prof. Adrian Lister at the Natural History Museum in London have shed new light on these elephants. The team focussed their efforts on one of the extinct elephant populations that lived ca. 3500 years ago in what today is southeastern Turkey. They specifically analysed elephant teeth that had previously been excavated from a lake deposit commonly known as ‘Gavur Lake Swamp’. These elephants appear to have lived and died naturally around this lake since the researchers have found no evidence of human activity on the bones or tusks, the latter of which was, and still is, a valued commodity for humans.

The researchers first analysed the morphology of the elephants’ teeth and showed that most teeth were indeed very similar to modern East Asian elephants. However, some teeth bore unusual features, raising the question of whether this population in fact was evolutionarily unique and only distantly related to elephant populations still living in East Asia.

To resolve this question, the team extracted and sequenced ancient DNA from the same teeth and compared the DNA sequences to those of modern elephants from across East Asia. This showed that the Gavur Lake Swamp elephants’ DNA was evolutionary very close to the DNA found in modern East Asian elephants; in fact, they found an identical match to a modern elephant from Thailand. They thus concluded that the elephants that once lived in Turkey were genetically similar, and thus closely related, to extant East Asian elephants, and that this ancient population harboured greater morphological variation than their modern counterparts.

The full paper can be read in Open Quaternary: http://doi.org/10.5334/oq.36

Girdland-Flink, L., Albayrak, E., & Lister, A.M., (2018). Genetic insight into an extinct population of Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus) in the Near East. Open Quaternary. 4(1), 2. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/oq.36

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