Desert Elephants Pass on Their Extreme Survival Skills

August 4, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

desert elephant
Photo credit: Vernon Swanepoel/flickr (CC BY 2.0)

They have found clever ways to beat the heat.

In the Namibian desert, elephants have figured out how to cope with the extreme heat, which often rises into the triple digits. These desert-dwellers will cover their bodies in sand dampened by their own urine or gallons of water that they regurgitate from a specialized pouch beneath their tongue. And true to the saying, “an elephant never forgets,” they also have an uncanny ability to remember the locations of scarce waterholes, despite their sprawling home ranges.

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With these distinct adaptations to their arid environment, and with their apparent physical isolation from other elephant populations, it has been assumed that Namibian desert elephants are genetically unique. But according to a new study in the journal Ecology and Evolution, their DNA is no different from that of other savanna elephant populations in Namibia.

Isolated populations in marginal habitats typically face strong selective pressures, which over time bring about genetic changes. It is these genetic changes that allow vulnerable populations to survive under challenging conditions. In the case of the Namibian desert elephants, the authors believe that their survival through time can be accounted for by two factors: their high learning capacity and their long-distance migrations.

Their propensity to migrate would have allowed these elephants to expand into novel habitats, buffering them against variable climates and hunting pressures. Meanwhile, their “knowledge of how to live in the desert is crucial to the survival of future generations of elephants in the arid habitat,” study lead author Alfred Roca, from the University of Illinois, says in a press release.

Roca suggests that this capacity to learn and transmit knowledge across generations may also explain they lack clear signs of genetic adaptation. “The ability of species such as elephants to learn and change their behavior means that genetic changes are not critical for them to adapt to a new environment," he says.

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