Elephants Are Evolving Without Tusks Thanks to Poaching

iStock.com/LeighGregg
iStock.com/LeighGregg

Natural selection can take millions of years to shape a gene pool, but in parts of Africa, the extreme pressures of poaching may have changed elephants in just a few decades. As National Geographic reports, more tuskless elephants have emerged in regions where their ivory has made them a target.

Elephant poaching has long been in a problem Africa, but the crisis reached a fever pitch during Mozambique's 15-year civil war. Between 1977 and 1992, 90 percent of the elephants living in the country's Gorongosa National Park were slaughtered for ivory used to fund the conflict.

The diminished numbers aren't the only thing that looks different about Gorongosa's elephants today. Poachers often kill male elephants first because they have bigger tusks, and once they're eliminated, the hunters will go after females. Typically, about 2 to 4 percent of all female African elephants never develop tusks—but among female elephants that survived Mozambique's civil war, that number is 51 percent. The effects of poaching can also be observed in the next generation. Roughly 32 percent of female elephants born after 1992 are tuskless.

The trend can be seen in other parts of Africa where poaching has ravaged elephant populations. In Ruaha National Park in Tanzania, elephant behavior researcher Josephine Smit has observed that over one fifth of female elephants older than 5 years lack tusks. Tusklessness rates reach about 35 percent in females over 25.

The statistics are even harder to ignore in South Africa's Addo Elephant National Park, where tuskless animals made up 98 percent of all female elephants in the early 2000s. South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, Lupande Game Management Area in Zambia, and Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda each reported higher-than-average rates of tusklessness immediately following the ivory wars of the 1970s and '80s.

Though poaching is on the decline thanks to bans on the ivory trade and other conservation efforts in Africa, its impact can still be felt. In East Africa, the elephant population was nearly halved between 2008 and 2018. The establishment of wildlife preserves, DNA tracing, and GPS tracking are just a few of the ways conservationists are working to crack down on poachers and restore the species.

[h/t National Geographic]

A Python Swallowed a Crocodile Whole—and a Photographer Was There to Capture It All

KarenHBlack/iStock via Getty Images
KarenHBlack/iStock via Getty Images

As long as it can fit through their elastic jaws, there's not much pythons won't eat. This genus of snakes has been known to swallow everything from small bears to porcupines. As Live Science reports, a python was recently spotted eating a crocodile in Australia—and the disturbing encounter was caught on camera.

On May 31, 2019, the Australian nonprofit GG Wildlife Rescue Inc. shared photos a kayaker named Martin Muller captured of a snake inhaling a crocodile outside Mount Isa in Queensland. The snake was an olive python—a native Australian species that's found exclusively on the continent. Pythons can subdue large prey by wrapping their powerful bodies around it and constricting the animal until it suffocates. Killing a large, aggressive predator like a freshwater crocodile is only half the job. Once its prey is ready to eat, the python opens its jaw, which can stretch several times larger than its head, and gradually consumes its meal, a process that can take hours.

The images below offer a rare look at this brutal act of nature. Muller captured the entire scene, from the python wrangling the croc to the gluttonous feeding that takes place afterwards. The last photos in the series show the python with a large, lumpy bulge in its belly—a sign of its success.

Pythons have been spotted eating crocodiles and alligators in the past, and it doesn't always end well for them. In 2005, a Burmese python in Florida—where they're an invasive species—burst open after trying to swallow an alligator whole. If this python spotted in Australia can stomach its meal, the croc will potentially sustain the snake for months.

[h/t Live Science]

An Underpass for Turtles in Wisconsin Is Saving Dozens of the Little Guys’ Lives

Dmytro Varavin/iStock via Getty Images
Dmytro Varavin/iStock via Getty Images

Why did the turtle cross the road? Because an underground tunnel made it safe to do so.

In 2016, the Wisconsin Departments of Transportation and Natural Resources partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to construct a tunnel beneath Highway 66, hoping to cut down on high turtle mortality rates, reports Robert Mentzer for Wisconsin Public Radio.

The tunnel, with Jordan Pond on one side and wetlands on the other, was a noble venture, but the turtles had no way of knowing it was a crossing point rather than a dark and potentially dangerous hole. So Pete Zani, herpetologist and associate professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, installed aluminum flashing outside of each opening, which would reflect the sky and let turtles know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Zani also installed grates above the tunnel to make it less shadowy, and a small cul-de-sac in a nearby piece of the fencing to encourage turtles who had missed the tunnel to turn around.

Zani and his team found that in the first year after construction, 85 percent fewer turtles were killed on the road, and no baby turtles were among the casualties. In the last few years combined, only 40 turtles died, compared to 66 deaths in 2015 alone.

That’s great news for local turtles, of course, and it’s great news for local humans, too. The intersection in question is always busy with truckers, commuters, and families en route to Jordan Pond, and turtle crossing can exacerbate traffic congestion and increase the chance of accidents.

Not all turtles have caught on, however, and it looks like some might never get the memo. Zani found that about 30 percent of snapping turtles and 20 percent of painted turtles make it through the tunnel, and those numbers have been consistent each year since construction. “They either get it or they don’t,” Zani told Wisconsin Public Radio.

Other animals are getting it, too. As part of the experiment, Zani set up a turtle-wrangling program in which students monitored trail cameras for turtle activity outside the underpass. In photos captured by the cameras, they noticed that rodents, mink, skunks, raccoons, and even house cats were traveling by turtle tunnel.

[h/t Wisconsin Public Radio]

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