Most people have been taught that there are two species of elephants, famously referred to as African and Asian elephants. Some relevant agencies have believed that the African elephant includes two subspecies. However, biologists have long suspected that there were in fact three species of elephants, and recent genetic analysis have proven that they are correct.
A paper published last year revealed that the two African elephant subspecies, the savannah (Loxodonta Africana) and forest (Loxodonta cyclotis) are not subspecies at all, but two separate species.
The savannah and forest elephants were found to be distinctly genetically different, with L. cyclotis being more closely related to Palaeoloxodon antiquus, an extinct straight-tusked elephant, than to L. Africana.
According to a report by IFL Science, the authors of the paper compared 14 genetic sequences, using six from living elephant species and eight from extinct species of elephants, mammoths, and mastodons.
Professor David Adelson of the University of Adelaide said in a statement, “The most surprising result was the degree of interbreeding between species.”
He continued, “We didn’t really expect there would be gene flow between the mammoths and mastodons and the ancestors of modern elephants, but our results showed frequent interbreeding.”
The study shows that savannah and forest elephants were separated on a genetic level, as well as likely a physical one, for a period of approximately 500,000 years. It is possible the separation reflects climate conditions of the time that would have created uncrossable barriers between the habitats of the two.
Once the two species were once again in contact, their genetic makeup differed to the point of qualifying as two separate species, especially since the forest elephant had genes related to the straight-tusked elephant and the mammoth.
However, despite these differences, interbreeding would have been possible.