African elephants

There are 2 forms of African elephant, with different distributions and very marked physical differences:

  1. The bush or savanna elephant, distributed in eastern and southern Africa, has:
    • a large and rangy body
    • very large and triangular ears
    • massive tusks which curve outwards and forwards
    • a distinctly saddle-shaped back
  2. The forest elephant occupies much of central and western Africa. It has:
    • a distinctly smaller, more compact body
    • smaller, rounded ears
    • narrow, long and downward-pointing tusks
    • a straighter back

Subspecies or species?

In the past the 2 forms have been treated as subspecies of Loxodonta africana:

  • L. a. africana (African bush elephant)
  • L. a. cyclotis (African forest elephant)

Recent genetic research has raised the possibility that they are separate species:

  • L. africana
  • L. cyclotis

This question is important because it helps shape the conservation policies of international organisations like:

  • CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora)
  • IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), which publishes the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

Our research

  1. Transition zone elephants
    A 2004 expedition to Ghana studied a population of elephants in the ‘transition zone’ between the classic savannah and forest forms. We found a mosaic of features:
    • body size as large as savannah elephants
    • tusk and head shape like forest elephants
    • intermediate ear shape
  2. Ear shape
    A further study investigated ear shape by comparing a series of populations across Africa. Although the difference between some ‘classic’ forest and savannah populations is clear, others show a range of forms, making them difficult to classify as one or the other.

Recommendation

While genetic and other studies continue, the ability to recognise 2 clear species in the field is problematic. We therefore suggest that all populations should continue to be named as a single species for the time being.

Staff involved in this research:

Collaborator:

Kalina Davies, Queen Mary University of London

Project staff