DNA Analysis Indicates That Asian Elephants Are Native to Borneo and Are Therefore a High Priority for Conservation

Fernando, Prithiviraj; Vidya, T. N. C.; Payne, John; Stuewe, Michael; Davison, Geoffrey; Alfred, Raymond J.; Andau, Patrick; Bosi, Edwin; Kilbourn, Annelisa; Melnick, Don Jay

The origin of Borneo's elephants is controversial. Two competing hypotheses argue that they are either indigenous, tracing back to the Pleistocene, or were introduced, descending from elephants imported in the 16th–18th centuries. Taxonomically, they have either been classified as a unique subspecies or placed under the Indian or Sumatran subspecies. If shown to be a unique indigenous population, this would extend the natural species range of the Asian elephant by 1300 km, and therefore Borneo elephants would have much greater conservation importance than if they were a feral population. We compared DNA of Borneo elephants to that of elephants from across the range of the Asian elephant, using a fragment of mitochondrial DNA, including part of the hypervariable d-loop, and five autosomal microsatellite loci. We find that Borneo's elephants are genetically distinct, with molecular divergence indicative of a Pleistocene colonisation of Borneo and subsequent isolation. We reject the hypothesis that Borneo's elephants were introduced. The genetic divergence of Borneo elephants warrants their recognition as a separate evolutionary significant unit. Thus, interbreeding Borneo elephants with those from other populations would be contraindicated in ex situ conservation, and their genetic distinctiveness makes them one of the highest priority populations for Asian elephant conservation.

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Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology
Public Library of Science
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December 21, 2015