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Ancient DNA shakes up the elephant family tree

Straight-tusked elephants were more closely related to African, not Asian, species

3:08pm, June 13, 2017
illustration of a straight-tusked elephant

ELEPHANT ANCESTRY  The first DNA analysis of straight-tusked elephants (illustrated) finds they are most closely related to modern African forest elephants, suggesting the extinct animals have been lumped in with the wrong elephant lineage for decades.  

Fossil DNA may be rewriting the history of elephant evolution.

The first genetic analysis of DNA from fossils of straight-tusked elephants reveals that the extinct animals most closely resembled modern African forest elephants. This suggests that straight-tusked elephants were part of the African, not Asian, elephant lineage, scientists report online June 6 in eLife.

Straight-tusked elephants roamed Europe and Asia until about 30,000 years ago. Much like modern Asian elephants, they sported high foreheads and double-domed skulls. These features convinced scientists for decades that straight-tusked and Asian elephants were sister species, says Adrian Lister, a paleobiologist at the Natural History Museum in London who was not involved in the study.

For the new study, researchers extracted and decoded DNA from the bones of four straight-tusked elephants found in Germany. The fossils ranged from

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