Elephant Impostor Actually African
November 6, 2013

Centuries Old Elephant Impostor Reclassified As African

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Scientists using modern techniques to analyze ancient DNA and proteins determined that a 300-year-old Asian elephant is actually an African elephant. The team wrote in their study, which appeared in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, that this ancient specimen is likely the remains of a famous performing elephant from the 1600s that went by the name of Hansken.

Carl Linnaeus was the first to name elephants as a species when identifying more than 10,000 plants and animals. Scientists did not originally distinguished between African and Asian elephants until later when the genus Loxodonta was created.

Linnaeus’ original syntypes created in 1758 became associated with Asian elephants exclusively, which fell under the original genus-species known as E. maximus, or Elephas. When creating the original syntypes, he included several examples of specimens in Europe, including an elephant fetus and a skeleton described by John Ray. However, historical evidence shows that the original fetus Linnaeus’ used was most likely an African elephant.

Asian elephant fetuses have domed heads, relatively small ears, and a single “finger” at the end of their trunk. The fetus used by Linnaeus has a convex-shaped head, relatively large ears and two “fingers” at the end of the trunk, which are all characteristics of an African elephant. Researchers used genetic analyses to definitively conclude that the fetus used by Linnaeus is an African elephant and should no longer be considered a syntype for Asian elephants.

The team found three instances where a single DNA base pair was different in the genetic code for Asian and African elephants. These results helped prove even more that the fetus matched the African Loxodonta genus rather than the original Asian Elephas.

“Using a database with DNA from more than 650 African elephants, Ishida found the fetus was from West Central Africa,” said Alfred Roca, a professor of animal sciences and member of the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois, who led Illinois’s efforts in the study. “That is actually the place where historical records suggest the fetus was collected.”

The new data also created an unmistakable link between the new lectotype and the famous 17th century circus elephant Hansken. A 1651 account said that Hansken was 21 years old, which means four years later she would have been the same age as the elephant found in Florence that died in 1655. This elephant, just like Hansken, was able to draw a sword with its trunk.

“How many elephants were in Europe at the time and how many were said to be able to draw a sword?” Roca said. “That’s what convinced me.”

Enrico Cappellini, lead author of the study, pointed out how amazing it is that modern technology can be used to verify centuries old data. “It is remarkable to think that combining observations made more than 200 years ago by Linnaeus, Seba and John Ray, with state-of-the-art analysis ancient proteomics and DNA, has enabled us to give the Asian elephant its correct type specimen,” Cappellini, from the Natural History Museum of Denmark. “That you can still see it as a life drawing by Rembrandt demonstrates how science and art remain inseparable.”