Research shows that wild African Elephants act like domestic animals, and that they may have domesticated themselves.
Humans have domesticated many animals to be friendly, sociable, and docile. Scientists have seen that wild African Elephants play, care for their young, and show social behaviours that domesticated animals have, even though they have never been domesticated by humans.
Scientists say that wild African Elephants (Loxodonta africana) are one of the few species to show self-domestication, which has only previously been documented in Bonobo Chimpanzees (Pan paniscus).
Researcher Limor Raviv and her colleagues in the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands studied wild African Elephants and compared their behaviour with Bonobos and humans on 20 different measures. They found that the African Elephant, Bonobo, and human all have similar behaviours – they are all social, play, have a long childhood, and care for their young.
They also found that the wild African Elephant has a shortened jawbone, just like many domesticated animals have – which shows restraint in aggression towards others.
Then the researchers studied 261 domestic animals – cats, dogs, cattle, horses, etc. – and created a list of genes associated with domestication. They identified 674 genes in the wild African Elephant that have a high likelihood of being passed down from earlier elephant generations. Of these 674 genes, 79 of them were associated with domestication in other species – which shows that they developed these genes without the direct intervention of humans.
Limor Raviv says this is significant because elephants and humans are not closely related, whereas Bonobo Chimpanzees and humans are closely related.
The researchers have not studied the Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) yet because the gene data was not available. Limor Raviv thinks the Asian Elephant, and other highly intelligent animals – such as dolphins, seals, whales, bats, and parrots – might also have developed self-domestication.
Other scientists are not sure whether this is really the situation, because they think that a species cannot become domesticated alone. They think it takes a mutual process between two species to show actual domestication. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics think that it is a phenonomenon that deserves more research.
Location of photographs: Kenya
Photographer: Martina Nicolls
Martina Nicolls: SIMILAR BUT DIFFERENT IN THE ANIMAL KINGDOM