News Archive

posted 09/30/03

Borneo Elephants: A High Priority For Conservation

borneo elephant

Don Melnick of CERC applied DNA analysis to Borneo elephants and learned that they are genetically distinct from other Asian elephants. Image Credit: Melvin Gumal/WCS

Scientists from Columbia University settle a long-standing dispute about the genesis of an endangered species. With scant fossil evidence supporting a prehistoric presence, scientists could not say for sure where Borneo’s elephants came from. Did they descend from ancient prototypes of the Pleistocene era or from modern relatives introduced just 300–500 years ago? That question, as Fernando et al. report in an article appearing in the inaugural issue of PLoS Biology (and currently available online at http://biology.plosjournals.org), is no longer subject to debate.

Applying DNA analysis and dating techniques to investigate the elephants’ evolutionary path, researchers from the United States, India, and Malaysia, led by Don Melnick of the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation at Columbia, demonstrate that Borneo’s elephants are not recent arrivals. They are genetically distinct from other Asian elephants and may have parted ways with their closest Asian cousins when Borneo separated from the mainland, effectively isolating the Borneo elephants some 300,000 years ago.

In the 1950s, Borneo elephants had been classified as a subspecies of Asian elephants (either Indian or Sumatran) based on anatomical differences, such as smaller skull size and tusk variations. This classification was later changed, partly because of the popular view that these animals had descended from imported domesticated elephants. Until now, there was no solid evidence to refute this belief and no reason to prioritize the conservation of Borneo elephants.

Their new status, as revealed by this study, has profound implications for the fate of Borneo’s largest mammals. Wild Asian elephant populations are disappearing as expanding human development disrupts their migration routes, depletes their food sources, and destroys their habitat. Recognizing these elephants as native to Borneo makes their conservation a high priority and gives biologists important clues about how to manage them.

borneo elephants

Recognizing these elephants as native to Borneo makes their conservation a high priority and gives biologists important clues about how to manage them. Image Credit: Melvin Gumal/WCS

Research Article: Fernando P, Vidya TNC, Payne J, Stuewe M, Davison G, et al. (2003). DNA analysis indicates that Asian elephants are native to Borneo and are therefore a high priority for conservation. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0000006

The Center for Environmental Research and Conservation (CERC), a member of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, is a consortium of five leading New York City science and education institutions - Columbia University, the American Museum of Natural History, The New York Botanical Garden, Wildlife Conservation Society and Wildlife Trust - which trains the next generation of environmental leaders to address the challenges of conserving the Earth's biological diversity.

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment, and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines -- earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences -- and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through its research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor.

The paper “DNA analysis indicates that Asian elephants are native to Borneo and are therefore a high priority for conservation” was published online as a sneak preview to PLoS Biology, the first open-access journal from the Public Library of Science (PLoS). It is part of the inaugural issue of the new journal, which will appear online and in print in October 2003. PLoS is a non-profit organization of scientists and physicians committed to making the world's scientific and medical literature a freely available public resource (http://www.plos.org).