A lot of elephants in the wild are not “black”, but are instead “white”.
But how can you tell the differences?
“We don’t know, but we have a lot of different theories about that,” says Paul Gautier, a wildlife ecologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
White elephants in sub-Saharan Africa are the least diverse of all elephant species, according to Gautiers work.
They have white hair, but their skin colour is very different to other elephants, such as brown elephants.
And white elephants live on the savannahs of Africa, in areas where there is no vegetation or grazing.
White elephant “white” is the dominant colour, while black and grey elephants are the others.
In a few places, such a population of white elephants is actually very common.
White-tailed deer are a common sight in areas of southern India, for example, and white elephants have been known to graze in their dens there.
The elephant population in the area where Gautieri studied in Tanzania, for instance, was thought to be very small, and was thought not to be living in a white elephant population.
But he and his team realised they were looking at a much bigger elephant population, with over 100,000 white elephants in one of Africa’s most biodiverse regions.
What is more, the elephants they were studying were mostly black, because they were not allowed to graen in the same area as the elephants in other parts of the country.
“The white elephants were living in different areas of the savanna than the other elephants,” Gautiest says.
So what are they doing in these areas?
White elephants are known to live in groups.
They are social and hunt in groups, which is why they are thought to have a high level of hunting success.
“They are known as herd animals, and they get food from the herd, so they are very mobile,” Gartier says.
The groups of elephants, which are called “layers”, are thought by some to be the “most efficient means of feeding the herd”.
“It’s very important that these animals get enough food, and that they are protected,” Gaultier says of elephants.
But Gautius team has found evidence that some white elephants may have been living in dens in areas that are less protected, and therefore were not as mobile.
“So we have the theory that they were living where they weren’t able to go on a long journey, and were living less mobile,” he says.
A new method of identifying elephants The scientists have developed a new method that will allow them to identify elephants by their markings, which can then be compared with the number of white and black elephants in their area.
Their new method, called “Discovery-Based Identification”, is based on DNA extracted from elephant skin cells.
“If you can identify an elephant from its skin, you can tell that they belong to a specific species, which could mean that the elephant is black or white,” Gaults says.
When the team first studied elephant skin in Tanzania and then in the Congo, the elephant skin was a fairly poor quality sample.
They found that the white elephant skin had a higher density of DNA compared to the black and gray elephant skin.
So they then developed a more detailed technique.
They took a sample from the trunk and examined the DNA to see if it was of the correct species.
“It turned out that the DNA was of a white and a black elephant,” Gansier says, “but there were a few differences in the DNA that they picked up.”
Gauties team found that it took about 12 hours for the DNA of the black elephant skin to be sequenced.
This time it took just six hours, so the team was able to analyse the DNA at a rate of more than 100 times faster than the average sample from a white or grey elephant.
The researchers then looked at the DNA in the white elephants skin and identified it as a “black-white-white” DNA, which means that the elephants skin contains the DNA from the white and the black elephants.
“I would say the white-white skin is probably the most stable DNA we’ve seen in elephants, so that is good news,” Gassier says and points out that other species of elephants are more stable.
What this means is that, although elephants can be identified by their skin color, they may be more likely to have white skin than they think.
The new method is “really important for us to start understanding more about the populations of elephants and how they’re doing in different parts of Africa,” Gauts says.
“There’s a lot we don’t yet know about the diversity of elephants,” he adds.
“We can only get a better understanding of the elephants that are living in our landscapes, and we need to work together to do that.”
A lot more research is needed Gauters team is also planning to follow the elephants and monitor their populations