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Mystery of the War Elephants Solved

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 10, 2014

This artist's explanation was that North African forest elephants (left) are smaller than Indian elephants (right). (Source: )

This artist’s explanation was that
North African forest elephants (left) are smaller than Indian elephants (right). (Source: )

Scholars have been arguing almost forever over the “War of the Elephants,” which took place in 217 B.C. between Ptolemy IV, King of Egypt, and Antiochus III the Great, whose kingdom reached from modern-day Turkey to Pakistan.

The battle (also known as the Battle of Raphia) took place in what is now Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on the border between present-day Egypt and Israel. It was the only known battle in which Asian and African elephants faced off against each other.  The great mystery, until now, was why historical accounts described the African elephants as smaller and less powerful than their Asian counterparts.

That never made much sense because we know that the largest African savannah elephants are bigger on average by about a half meter and 1000 kilograms. The historical account said Ptolemy, leading the army with the African elephants, had commandeered his elephants from what is now Eritrea, on the Red Sea, home to the northernmost population of savannah elephants. Some scholars (and the unknown artist for the illustration above) argued that he had obtained African forest elephants rather than savannah elephants.  Forest elephants are a closer match in size with Asian elephants, and research has recently demonstrated that they are a separate species from savannah elephants.

So did Eritrea have forest or savannah elephants?

Now a study in The Journal of Heredity proposes a DNA-based answer.  Alfred Roca from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his co-authors analyzed the DNA of the last surviving Eritrean elephants, a population of about 100 animals on the country’s southwestern border with Ethiopia.

In the battle, Antiochus had 102 Asian war elephants, and Ptolemy had 73 African war elephants. Describing what happened 70 years later, the Greek historian Polybius wrote:

A few of Ptolemy’s elephants ventured too close with those of the enemy, and now the men in the towers on the back of these beasts made a gallant fight of it, striking with their pikes at close quarters and wounding each other, while the elephants themselves fought still better, putting forth their whole strength and meeting forehead to forehead.

Ptolemy’s elephants, however, declined the combat, as is the habit of African elephants; for unable to stand the smell and the trumpeting of the [Asian] elephants, and terrified, I suppose, also by their great size and strength, they at once turn tail and take to flight before they get near them.

Over the years, there has been a lot of speculation about Polybius’s account.  “Until well into the 19th century the ancient accounts were taken as fact by all modern natural historians and scientists,” says Neal Benjamin, an Illinois veterinary student who studies elephant taxonomy and ancient literature with Roca, “and that is why Asian elephants were given the name Elephas maximus.  After the scramble for Africa by European nations, more specimens became available and it became clearer that African elephants were mostly larger than Asian elephants. At this point, speculation began about why the African elephants in the Polybius account might have been smaller. One scientist, Paules Deraniyagala, even suggested that they might even have been an extinct smaller subspecies.”

In fact, analysis of mitochondrial DNA from present-day Eritrean elephants reveals that they are actually savanna elephants. But what does that say about the elephants that lived there 2300 years ago, at the time of the battle?

Mitochondrial DNA tends to be better preserved than nuclear DNA and provides a window into the mating history of a species.  It ” is the ideal marker because it not only tells you what’s there now, but it’s an indication of what had been there in the past because it doesn’t really get replaced even when the species changes,” says Roca . Contrary to what some scholars had theorized, mitochondrial DNA revealed no genetic ties to forest or Asian elephants.  Though they are now isolated, Eritrean elephants are most closely related to other populations of East African savanna elephants.
So why did Polybius say they were outclassed by their Asian counterparts?  The new study doesn’t try to answer that key question.  But it’s likely that populations from a dry, sparsely vegetated region like modern Eritrea were simply smaller because of available resources.  African elephants have also rarely been tamed well enough to be reliable in battle.
By the way–and I know you have been waiting desperately for the outcome–Ptolemy won anyway, and he did it the usual way, with skilled, disciplined, and determined foot soldiers.
POST SCRIPT:  The researchers hope their findings will aid conservation efforts.  The remaining Eritrean elephants are isolated and inbred.  They require habitat restoration and monitoring.  Ideally, future conservation efforts couldestablish a corridor connecting Eritrean population to other the East African savanna elephants.  But that is unlikely.  Short of that, deliberate introductions may be necessary to provide  genetic diversity.

2 Responses to “Mystery of the War Elephants Solved”

  1. Лучшие фильмы!

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  2. mob of elephants crossing roads in the borders of two states of india kerala and karnataka

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