Research study tracks elephant tusks from 16th century shipwreck


IMAGE: A brand-new research study examined the biggest historical freight of African ivory ever discovered, scientists report. All of the elephant tusks were from African forest elephants, Loxodonta cyclotis.
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Credit: Picture by Nicholas Georgiadis

CHAMPAIGN, Ill.– In 1533, the Bom Jesus – a Portuguese trading vessel bring 40 lots of freight consisting of gold, silver, copper and more than 100 elephant tusks – sank off the coast of Africa near contemporary Namibia. The wreck was discovered in 2008, and researchers state they now have actually figured out the source of much of the ivory recuperated from the ship.

Their research study, reported in the journal Present Biology, utilized different methods, consisting of a genomic analysis of DNA drawn out from the unspoiled tusks, to figure out the types of elephants, their geographical origins and the kinds of landscapes they resided in prior to they were eliminated for their tusks.

The ivory had actually been stowed in a lower level of the Bom Jesus under a weighty freight of copper and lead ingots, stated Alida de Flamingh, a postdoctoral scientist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who led the research study with U. of I. animal sciences teacher Alfred Roca and sociology teacher Ripan Malhi.

” When the ship sank, the ingots compressed the tusks into the seabed, avoiding a great deal of physical disintegration by sea currents that can cause the damage and scattering of shipwreck artifacts,” de Flamingh stated. “There is likewise a very cold sea existing because area of seaside Namibia, which likely likewise assisted protect the DNA in the shipwrecked tusks.”

The group drawn out DNA from 44 tusks.

By evaluating hereditary series understood to vary in between African forest and savanna elephants, the researchers figured out that all of the tusks they examined come from forest elephants. An additional assessment of mitochondrial DNA, which is passed just from moms to their offspring, used a more exact geographical origin of the elephant tusks than is otherwise offered.

” Elephants reside in matriarchal household groups, and they tend to remain in the exact same geographical location throughout their lives,” de Flamingh stated. “By comparing the shipwrecked ivory mitochondrial DNA with that from elephants with recognized origins throughout Africa, we had the ability to determine particular areas and types of elephants whose tusks were discovered in the shipwreck.”

All 44 tusks were from elephants living in West Africa. None came from Central Africa. .

” This follows the facility of Portuguese trading centers along the West African coast throughout this duration of history,” de Flamingh stated. .(* )The group utilized DNA to trace the elephants to 17 household lineages, just 4 of which are understood to continue Africa.

” The other family trees vanished since West Africa has actually lost more than 95% of its elephants in subsequent centuries due to searching and environment damage,” Roca stated. .(* )The group is including the brand-new DNA series to the

, an open-access tool established at the U. of I. that permits users to compare mitochondrial DNA series gathered from poached elephant tusks with those in an online database gathered from elephants throughout the African continent.

To find out more about the environments the elephants lived in, Oxford University Pitt Rivers Museum research study fellow and research study co-author Ashley Coutu examined the steady carbon and nitrogen isotopes of 97 tusks. The ratios of these isotopes vary depending upon the kinds of plants the elephants taken in and the quantity of rains in the environment. .Loxodonta Localizer That analysis exposed that the elephants resided in combined environments, changing from forested locations to savannas in various seasons, more than likely in reaction to water schedule.

” Our information assist us to comprehend the ecology of the West African forest elephant in its historical landscape, which has importance to contemporary wildlife preservation,” Coutu stated.

” Our research study examined the biggest historical freight of African ivory ever discovered,” de Flamingh stated. “By integrating complementary analytical methods from several clinical fields, we had the ability to determine the origin of the ivory with a resolution that is not possible utilizing any single method. The research study supplies a structure for taking a look at the huge collections of historical and historical ivories in museums throughout the world.”

de Flamingh performed the DNA analysis in the Malhi Molecular Sociology Lab at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the U. of I. This job was a multi-institutional effort including partners in Namibia, South Africa, the UK and the U.S.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service African Elephant Preservation Fund, U.S. Department of Farming, National Research Study Structure of South Africa, Department of Science and Innovation of South Africa, and Claude Leon Structure supported this research study.

Editor’s notes:


To reach Alida de Flamingh, e-mail .

To reach Alfred Roca, .

To reach Ripan Malhi, e-mail .

To reach Ashley Coutu,

The paper “Sourcing elephant ivory from a 16th century Portuguese shipwreck” is offered from the U. of I. News Bureau. .

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