HYBRID ELEPHANTS, RHINOS & TAPIRS

ELEPHANTS

The Asian and African elephants look similar, but are not only different species, they are different genera i.e. each belongs to a different genus, making them even more distantly related). Crossbreeds between different genera is regarded as impossible. On 11th July 1978, an Asian elephant cow called Sheba gave birth to a hybrid calf sired by a 15 year old African elephant bull, Jumbolino. Though the pair had mated several times, pregnancy was believed to be impossible. The hybrid male calf, "Motty", had an African elephant's cheek, ears (large with pointed lobes) and legs (longer and slimmer), but the toenail numbers, (5 front, 4 hind) and the single trunk finger were like Asians although the wrinkled trunk was like an African. The forehead was sloping with one dome and two smaller domes behind it. The body was African in type, but had an Asian-type centre hump and an African-type rear hump. Sadly the calf was premature and died of infection 12 days later. There have also been rumours of three other hybrid elephants, all of which were deformed and did not survive.

African elephants are divided into 2 species - the Forest elephant and the Savannah elephant. Though these can hybridise successfully, their preference for different terrains reduces the opportunities to hybridise and they are genetically distinct from each other. The forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis), considered a subspecies of African elephant, has been raised to species status (Loxodonta cyclotis). Typical savannah elephants have 4 toenails on each forefoot and 3 on each hind foot. The forest elephant typically has 5 toenails on each forefoot and 4 on each hind foot. Both species have 5 toenails on all 4 feet at birth - the number of toenails at maturity is related to wear and tear on different terrain! There are differences in the shape of the jaw and ears. The forest elephant is considerably smaller and has thinner, straighter tusks.

A Chinese safari park has a sub-specific hybrid of Malay elephant x Indian elephant. It was born in Xiangjiang Safari Park, Guangzhou in April 2005. The mother was a Malaysian elephant. The gender of the calf was unknown as the mother was nervous and elephant calves are fragile and prone to infection in captivity, but it was suspected to be female. The mother had a long trunk and short tail, typical of the Malaysian elephant, while the father had a shorter trunk and longer tail.

Matt Salusbury has kindly given permission for me to reproduce some extracts about elephant hybridisation from his book Pygmy Elephants (CFZ Press, 2014).

I was very interested to read in "Messybeast" your comments on hybrid elephants . I came across some information (some of it more speculation) while researching my book Pygmy Elephants (CFZ Press, 2014, see Pygmy elephants and on Twitter, @Pyg_Eleph). Below are extracts from the book, which I hereby licence you to reproduce on Messybeast. Here's what I discovered:

Queen Elizabeth National Park is on the border between Uganda and what's now DRC, which would put it just outside the current known distribution range of forest elephants. The Uganda-based Kitomi Forest Conservation Project noted on its website that as of 2008, elephants in Queen Elizabeth were "under poaching pressure", adding that "Without knowing whether the elephants using these areas are the Bush elephant (Loxodonta africana africana), the Forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis, as it was then known) or a hybrid of the two, the improvement to their safety is paramount in order for… their future secured." The Kitomi project estimated elephant numbers within Queen Elizabeth to be between 1500 – 2000 depending on the number of elephant movements between adjoining protected areas and countries. "There are few elephants over the age of 40, however, there are young everywhere!"

I corresponded with Dr Clive Spinage, who was a warden in Queen Elizabeth back in the 1950s. He told me,"In the 50s and 60s there was a number of herds of intermediate forest/bush elephant types, as the forest and bush elephants have been found to be genetically distinct I assume they would be hybrids rather than gradations from a forest to a bush elephant. They tend to come in all shapes and sizes but I think none with the really rounded ears of the forest elephant… It is more likely that the bush elephants ranged into the forest than vice versa." This suggests that 50 years ago, if not still now, there were hybrid elephants around in western Uganda.

Another former game warden, D. Western, described his discussions with indigenous forest folk and hunters and local naturalists in the Central African Republic (CAR), Gabon, and Zaire (now DRC), especially the Babinga region. Western said that there, most tribes mentioned two types of elephant, "one big and one small." In Gabon and CAR there is "le gros" ("the big one" in French) and "assala" (the pygmy). The Babinga forest people pointed out both varieties le gros and assala to Western at Bayanga watering hole, possibly confused by savannah elephants who had only recently started turning up there. (The sudden arrival of savannah elephants there may have been as a result of poaching on the savannah 200km to the north.) Both le gros and assala were examples of known forest and savannah elephants, some with what Western felt were "hybrid features".

Other reports of hybrid elephants were coming in at around the time that Spinage was at Queen Elizabeth. In 1958, German zoologist D. Backhaus in a visit to Garamba elephant training station Gangala na Bodio – now in Congo DR but at the time in the Belgian Congo - observed elephants with variations in tusk form and ear shape which "bridge the gap" between forest and savannah elephants. Some of these in his opinion had the rounded ears of Loxodonta cyclotis, the forest elephant, but the curved tusks of the savannah elephant.

Dr Colin Groves of the Australian National University and his colleague Peter Grubb looked at the skulls of elephants from the Rutshuru Plains and forested mountains of the Virunga National Park (formerly Parc National Albert), also in DRC, and came to the conclusion that three of these skulls were from "definite hybrids", and that these hybrids lived alongside apparently "pure" species of both savannah and forest elephants. Grubb and Grove also quote French zoologist and elephant expert the late Pierre Pfeffer, who worked with the Natural History Museum in Paris. Pfeffer wrote about the various elephants he'd seen in different parts of Africa. In the Ivory Coast in the region between Sinfa and Gagnoa he saw "bush" elephants (savannah elephants) he described as "melanges" (intermingled) with forest elephants. In southern Burkino Faso near the Ghana border, he saw plump, short-legged elephants with rounded ears, interbreeding and living among much larger, slender elephants with big triangular ears. He also described an "intermediate" elephant (intermediate between forest elephants and savannah elephants) photographed at Fosse Aux Lions in Togo. It's unclear whether Pfeffer regarded southern Burkino short-legged, tubby elephants as dwarfs or just hybrids. And Dr Groves told Australian broadcaster ABC in 2005 that some herds of forest elephants "often don’t have bulls." Could the fathers of this herd be from a different herd of occasionally encountered savannah elephants?

More recently, DNA analysis seems to support observations and reports of elephantine hybrids. A Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) mitochondrial DNA survey led by Dr Al Roca of forest elephants in the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo DR) showed that half the specimens surveyed had the mitochondrial DNA of a forest elephant mother and a the nuclear DNA of a savannah elephant on their father’s side.

Other, bigger studies involving samples from multiple elephant populations, however, suggest there’s an "extremely limited hybridization of gene flow between forest and savannah elephants". It seems forest elephants periodically move into open savannah, where they meet savannah elephants and even breed with them.

Dr Victoria Herridge, studying elephants and the locomotion of fossil pygmy elephants in particular at Natural History Museum, London, told me she'd talked to Dr Regis Debruyne, now of Museum of Natural History, Paris, who'd looked at a lot of dead museum specimens of elephants at one time labelled "pygmy elephants." According to Herridge, Debruyne had told her in conversation that some of these specimens that he'd examined had signs of being "morphologically intermediate" between forest elephants and savannah elephants – he suggested that these might be some sort of hybrid.

Debruyne's 2005 genetic study of forest and savannah elephant populations concluded that the two types of elephant weren't separate species, and that their evolution seemed to be a story of "incomplete isolation between forest and savannah African elephant populations, followed by recurrent interbreeding between the two forms."

The African Elephant Status Report of 2002 deliberately made no distinction between savannah elephants and forest elephants when it estimates how many elephants there were, and the report’s Position Paper makes it clear that as far as possible elephant hybrids are concerned, it doesn’t even want to go there.

The Position Paper states, "The (African Elephant Specialist) Group believes that the premature allocation of African elephants into separate specific taxa (species) would leave hybrids in an uncertain taxonomic and conservation status … and that more research is needed before such an allocation can be made."

There is also evidence of hybridisation in fossil proboscideans (elephants and their close relatives). Professor Adrian Lister of the Natural History Museum told me he felt that "hybridisation between wo species of mammoth, Mammuthus meridionalis and Mammuthus trogontherii" would "explain some 'mosaic' features of some Middle Pleistocene fossils." He also told me that shortly before I talked to him in 2011, a paper had just appeared that provided "ancient DNA evidence for hybridisation between woolly and Columbian mammoths in North America."

Matt Salusbury References:

RHINOS

In 2004 there was confirmation of a hybrid between a black rhino and white rhino. It is possible that these species are kept separate by geographical boundaries rather than genetic differences. Reference: Robinson, Terry J; Trifonov V; Espie I; Harley EH "Interspecific hybridization in rhinoceroses: Confirmation of a Black × White rhinoceros hybrid by karyotype, fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) and microsatellite analysis". Conservation Genetics 6 (1): 141-145. DOI:10.1007/s10592-004-7750-9.

A subspecific hybrid white rhino (Ceratotherium s. simum x C s cottoni) was bred at the Dvurkralv Zoo (Zoological Garden Dvur Kralove nad Labem) in the Czech Republic in 1977.

TAPIRS

Hybrid tapirs from Baird's Tapir (T bairdii) and the Lowland Tapir (T terrestris) were bred at the San Francisco Zoo around 1968 and produced a 2nd generation around 1970.

 

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