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Genetic analysis of Asian elephants in India reveals some surprises

Researchers in India and from The Earth Institute at Columbia University have discovered that one of the few remaining populations of Asian elephants in India is actually two genetically distinct groups. The results of the study, which appear in the current issue of the journal Animal Conservation, could have far-reaching implications in conservation plans for the endangered elephants as well as other species on the Subcontinent.

Prithiviraj Fernando, a post-doctoral researcher at the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation (CERC), and Don Melnick, executive director of CERC, together with colleagues from the Centre for Ecological Science at the Indian Institute of Science collected dung samples from nearly 300 wild Asian elephants and 30 captive elephants for which reliable capture information existed. They then examined DNA from the samples and found that, of the distinct populations found in India, the groups that inhabit the forests in the northeast of the country is actually composed of two genetically distinct populations separated by the Brahmaputra River.

Despite the low and declining numbers of Asian elephants, relatively little is known about their genetic diversity--information that is crucial to plans for preserving the species. An earlier study of elephants in southern India by the same group identified two distinct populations where there was previously thought to be only one. A region known as the Palghat Gap, a wide pass through the Western Ghat mountain range, was found to act a biogeographical barrier between the two in that case.

"It is interesting that the Brahmaputra seems to have been a biogeographical barrier for several species," the authors write in their most recent study. "Population genetic studies of other species would be helpful in corroborating whether the Palghat Gap and the Brahmaputra River have served as important biogeographical barriers to a broad range of taxa and thus should be considered i
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Contact: Ken Kostel
kkostel@ei.columbia.edu
212-854-9729
The Earth Institute at Columbia University
19-Dec-2005


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