At one point, forest elephants in Africa were thought to be the same species as savanna elephants. Genetic testing now shows that these two kinds of elephants are more different than scientists could've ever imagined.
Since 2001, researchers suspected that Africa had more than one species of elephant. The average forest elephant was a meter shorter than the larger savanna elephant. It was half as heavy. Still, some claimed that the differences in scale did not translate to differences in species. After some time spent living in forests, where maneuverability through growth would be a favored trait, forest elephants would breed smaller. Savanna elephants, on the other hand, might derive advantages from larger stature; such as seeing farther into the distance and being able to cover more ground.
DNA samples were taken from forest and savanna elephants, as well as Asian elephants, woolly mammoths, and mastodons. Researchers found that not only were African forest and savanna elephants different species, but they had been so for a long time.
Elephants adapted to forests and elephants adapted to grasslands split off from a common ancestor around the same time that Asian elephants and woolly mammoths parted ways, evolutionarily speaking. This makes the time the two spent as distinct species only slightly shorter than the 4 million years that chimpanzees and humans branched off from their common ancestor.
Not only does this new genetic information give people better insight into the evolution of these huge creatures, it will have to shape the way conservationists see the species. According to Alfred Roca, one of the study's authors and an assistant professor at the University of Illinois:
We now have to treat the forest and savanna elephants as two different units for conservation purposes. Since 1950, all African elephants have been conserved as one species. Now that we know the forest and savanna elephants are two very distinctive animals, the forest elephant should become a bigger priority for conservation purposes.
Two species = twice the necessary conservation.