Knowledge, Not Genetics, Allows Desert Elephants to Survive Harsh Climates

Researchers have found that Namibian desert elephants are genetically similar to African savanna elephants, despite the differences in home ranges and behavior patterns. The findings are in a paper just published in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

Elephants from the Namibian desert are isolated from other elephants and have been a conservation concern. They show unique behaviors that allow them to adapt to the harsh desert conditions. To cope with the extreme heat, the elephants have learned to cover their bodies with wet sand. They are also adept at memorizing food and water sources, which is critical since these elephants have very large home ranges. These distinctive behaviors have led scientists to believe that the desert elephants may be genetically different from savanna elephants. This would make conservation efforts critical.

Researchers investigated the genomes, including mitochondrial DNA, of a small group of Namibian desert elephants. They then compared the genotypes to those of elephants outside of the desert. The team found that the desert elephants had the same DNA as savanna elephants. There were no significant genetic differences.

The lack of genetic differences shows that the adaptive behaviors of Namibian desert elephants are not based on genetics. Instead, the elephants have learned how to adapt and have passed on this knowledge to their young. Elephants are known for their intelligence, memory, and learning ability. These skills have helped them survive in a desert climate.

While the desert population of Namibian elephants isn’t genetically unique, the researchers still believe them to be a conservation concern. The population is vulnerable due to climate change and hunting. If too many adults are killed, they won’t be able to pass on critical knowledge to younger elephants, putting the entire population at risk. Since the population is already small and only found in one area, it’s important that we increase conservation efforts and prevent poaching.


Yasuko Ishida et al. Genetic connectivity across marginal habitats: the elephants of the Namib Desert. Ecology and Evolution (2016).

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