Photo by: Peter Chadwick

Peter Chadwick

Tuskless Elephants Evolved to Escape Poachers

Unnatural selection: After being targeted by ivory poachers in Mozambique, elephants are being born without tusks at an increasing rate.

November 12, 2021

More than 20,000 African elephants are illegally killed every year for their ivory tusks, leaving behind the animals’ carcasses in their wake. But ivory hunting can impact more than just elephant numbers– a recent study found that previous overhunting has led to the increase of naturally tuskless elephants in Mozambique. During the Mozambique Civil War from 1977 to 1992, armies hunted so many elephants for their highly profitable ivory tusks that the species evolved in the span of a generation.

In addition to wrecking the natural ecosystem, the war left a scar on local elephant populations. As elephant numbers plummetted, the amount of female African savannah elephants born tuskless rose from just 18% to 51%. (In well-protected areas, tusklessness in elephants is as low as 2%.)



Seized elephant ivory.

Photo by: SIA KAMBOU


Seized elephant ivory.

The decades of poaching and constant killing of tusked elephants made being tuskless more advantageous from an evolutionary standpoint in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park.

While this mutation may have protected some elephants from ivory hunters, it is not beneficial to the overarching survival and wellbeing of these creatures. Tusks are actually massive teeth deeply rooted in an elephant’s enamel. They have many important functions like digging, lifting objects, gathering food, stripping bark off of trees to eat, and defense– protecting the elephant’s trunk.

“[Tusks are] not just ornamental. They serve a purpose,” says Shane Campbell-Staton, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University, “If an elephant doesn’t have the tool to do those things, then what happens?”



The tuskless gene mutation is hereditary.

Photo by: Peter Chadwick

Peter Chadwick

The tuskless gene mutation is hereditary.

The hereditary trait that causes female elephants to be born without tusks is formed by two tooth genes. In male elephants, the mutation is lethal. Tuskless elephants survived poaching in greater numbers passing down their mutated genes to the next generation– leading to both an increase in female tuskless elephants and a decrease in male elephants overall.

The evolutionary change in the African savannah elephant population is so significant, scientists predict the species will continue to experience its impact for generations to come, even as poaching eases.

Next Up

Lemurs Can Sing with Rhythm

Researchers found the first nonhuman animal that can keep a beat.

Using DNA to Reunite an Orphaned Elephant with her Mother

After villagers found a tiny elephant wandering alone, scientists began the search for her mother using DNA matching technology.

Giraffes Have Daycares, Lunch Buddies, and Yearslong Relationships

Scientists discovered that giraffes are actually a highly complex social species, on par with elephants and chimpanzees.

Bat Pups Babble like Babies

Baby greater sac-winged bats show similarities to human babies in the way they string together syllabus before they can learn to “talk.”

There’s a Black Rhino Baby Boom in Zimbabwe

Finally, a success story for the critically endangered animal.

The ‘Immortal’ Plant Tells Its Tale

A plant with two leaves has the power to live up to 1,000 years in a rowdy desert...is there really such a thing?

Bee Swarm Kills 63 Endangered Penguins

A colony of penguins near Cape Town, South Africa, was found dead after being attacked by a swarm of bees.

Baby Raptor Fossil Found in Alaska

Over 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, paleontologists found baby velociraptor fossils with big implications.

What Fat Bears and Astronauts Have in Common

The mysteries around hibernating bears have intrigued curious children and researchers alike for ages. What is hibernation, what causes it and aren’t bears too big to truly hibernate? And probably most interestingly - could humans do this someday?

Believed-Extinct Rio Apaporis Caiman Rediscovered

The believed-extinct Rio Apaporis caiman (Caiman crocodilus apaporiensis) has been captured by Forrest Galante, wildlife biologist and host of Animal Planet’s EXTINCT OR ALIVE, and team, making history once again.