The evolution and phylogeography of the African elephant inferred from mitochondrial DNA sequence and nuclear microsatellite markers

Lori S. Eggert , Caylor A. Rasner , David S. Woodruff


Recent genetic results support the recognition of two African elephant species: Loxodonta africana, the savannah elephant, and Loxodonta cyclotis, the forest elephant. The study, however, did not include the populations of West Africa, where the taxonomic affinities of elephants have been much debated. We examined mitochondrial cytochrome b control region sequences and four microsatellite loci to investigate the genetic differences between the forest and savannah elephants of West and Central Africa. We then combined our data with published control region sequences from across Africa to examine patterns at the continental level. Our analysis reveals several deeply divergent lineages that do not correspond with the currently recognized taxonomy: (i) the forest elephants of Central Africa; (ii) the forest and savannah elephants of West Africa; and (iii) the savannah elephants of eastern, southern and Central Africa. We propose that the complex phylogeographic patterns we detect in African elephants result from repeated continental–scale climatic changes over their five–to–six million year evolutionary history. Until there is consensus on the taxonomy, we suggest that the genetic and ecological distinctness of these lineages should be an important factor in conservation management planning.