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Ecol Evol. 2015 Oct 22;5(22):5216-5229. doi: 10.1002/ece3.1769. eCollection 2015 Nov.

Illegal tusk harvest and the decline of tusk size in the African elephant.

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Department of Biology Duke University Box 90338 Durham North Carolina 27708.
Veterinary Services Department Kenya Wildlife Service P.O. Box 40241-00100 Nairobi Kenya.
Biodiversity Monitoring & Research Division Kenya Wildlife Service Masai Mara Research Station P.O. Box 72-20500 Narok Kenya.


Harvesting of wild populations can cause the evolution of morphological, behavioral, and life history traits that may compromise natural or sexual selection. Despite the vulnerability of large mammals to rapid population decline from harvesting, the evolutionary effects of harvesting on mega-fauna have received limited attention. In elephants, illegal ivory harvesting disproportionately affects older age classes and males because they carry large tusks, but its' effects on tusk size for age or tusk size for stature are less understood. We tested whether severe historical elephant harvests eliminated large tuskers among survivors and whether elephants born thereafter had smaller tusks. Adjusting for the influence of shoulder height - a metric strongly correlated with body size and age and often used as a proxy for age - we compared tusk size for elephants sampled in 1966-1968, prior to severe ivory harvesting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with tusk size of survivors and elephants born during population recovery in the mid-1990s. In a regional population, tusk length declined by ˜21% in male and by ˜27% in female elephants born during population recovery, while tusk length declined by 22% in males and 37% in females among survivors. Tusk circumference at lip declined by 5% in males but not in females born during population recovery, whereas tusk circumference reduced by 8% in male and by 11% in female survivors. In a single subpopulation, mean tusk length at mean basal tusk circumference declined by 12.4% in males and 21% in females. Tusk size varied between elephant social groups. Tusk homogeneity within social groups and the often high genetic similarity within social groups suggest that tusk size may be heritable. Our findings support a hypothesis of selection of large tuskers by poachers as a driver of the decline in tusk size for age proxy and contemporary tusk evolution in African elephants.


Anthropogenic impacts; evolution of morphology; hunting; inheritance of incisors; ivory; selection; tusk evolution; tusklessness

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