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Nat Genet. 2005 Jan;37(1):96-100. Epub 2004 Dec 12.

Cytonuclear genomic dissociation in African elephant species.

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  • 1Laboratory of Genomic Diversity, Basic Research Program, SAIC-Frederick, Frederick, Maryland 21702, USA.


African forest and savanna elephants are distinct species separated by a hybrid zone. Because hybridization can affect the systematic and conservation status of populations, we examined gene flow between forest and savanna elephants at 21 African locations. We detected cytonuclear dissociation, indicative of different evolutionary histories for nuclear and mitochondrial genomes. Both paternally (n = 205 males) and biparentally (n = 2,123 X-chromosome segments) inherited gene sequences indicated that there was deep genetic separation between forest and savanna elephants. Yet in some savanna locales distant from present-day forest habitats, many individuals with savanna-specific nuclear genotypes carried maternally transmitted forest elephant mitochondrial DNA. This extreme cytonuclear dissociation implies that there were ancient episodes of hybridization between forest females and savanna males, which are larger and reproductively dominant to forest or hybrid males. Recurrent backcrossing of female hybrids to savanna bulls replaced the forest nuclear genome. The persistence of residual forest elephant mitochondria in savanna elephant herds renders evolutionary interpretations based on mitochondrial DNA alone misleading and preserves a genomic record of ancient habitat changes.

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