War Elephant DNA
January 12, 2014

DNA Results Uncover The Truth Of War Elephants

Way back before any of us were born, even before our great, great, great, grandparents were conceived, there was a huge conflict, the battle of Raphia. The battle commenced on June 22, 217 BC between Ptolemy IV Philopator, who was the pharaoh of Egypt and Antiochus III the Great from the Seleucid kingdom and was fought during the Syrian Wars.

Not only did the battle contain foot soldiers and horseman, elephants were used as part of the assault. Ptolemy’s army consisted of 70,000 infantry; 5,000 cavalry; and 73 war elephants. Antiochus’s army consisted of 62,000 infantry; 6,000 cavalry; and 102 war elephants.

When the battle was through 11,500 foot soldiers, 1,000 horses, and 21 elephants lost their lives between the two armies. Ptolemy was victorious in the battle and secured the province of Coele-Syria for Egypt.

Antiochus used Asian war elephants and Ptolemy used African war elephants, and recent DNA results proves that what was previously believed about them is wrong, according to researchers.>

Alfred Roca, a professor of Animal Sciences and a member of the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, led the research, Adam Brandt, author of the study, revealed their findings.

Seventy years after the battle, a Greek historian, Polybius described the battle. “A few of Ptolemy’s elephants ventured too close with those of the enemy, and now the men in the towers on the back of these beasts made a gallant fight of it, striking with their pikes at close quarters and wounding each other, while the elephants themselves fought still better, putting forth their whole strength and meeting forehead to forehead,” said Polybius.

He added, “Ptolemy’s elephants, however, declined the combat, as is the habit of African elephants; for unable to stand the smell and the trumpeting of the [Asian] elephants, and terrified, I suppose, also by their great size and strength, they at once turn tail and take to flight before they get near them.”

Speculation of this account by Polybius has sparked interest in the truth.

Neal Benjamin, an Illinois veterinary student studying elephant taxonomy and ancient literature with Roca said, “Until well into the 19th century the ancient accounts were taken as fact by all modern natural historians and scientists and that is why Asian elephants were given the name Elephas maximus. After the scramble for Africa by European nations, more specimens became available and it became clearer that African elephants were mostly larger than Asian elephants. At this point, speculation began about why the African elephants in the Polybius account might have been smaller. One scientist, Paules Deraniyagala, even suggested that they might even have been an extinct smaller subspecies.”

This brought up the question, what elephant species did Ptolemy use, African savanna or African forest elephants.

Brandt said, “Using three different markers, we established that the Eritrean elephants are actually savanna elephants. Their DNA was very similar to neighboring populations of East African savanna elephants but with very low genetic diversity, which was expected for such a small, isolated population.”

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is the genetic information passed down from the mother not the male. While the female will stay with the herd, the male will mate with females of different herds. So, the mtDNA would prove which type of elephant was used in the battle.

“In some sense, mtDNA is the ideal marker because it not only tells you what’s there now, but it’s an indication of what had been there in the past because it doesn’t really get replaced even when the species changes. The most convincing evidence is the lack of mtDNA from forest elephants in Eritrea,” Roca said.

Brandt added, “We have confirmed that this population is isolated and may be inbred. This population will require habitat restoration and preservation to minimize the possibility of human conflict. That’s really the issue—not having a place to go.”

Conservation efforts could create a habitat between the Eritrean population and the African savanna elephants.

“From what I read, the Eritrean government is pretty committed to conservation. They are planning to establish a large number of wildlife conservation areas, and one of the things at the top of their list is the elephants,” Roca said.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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