Wednesday, 20 August 2003

New Elephant species in new journal?

An exciting publishing development is to be found on the internet at The Public Library of Science is an online, fully refereed journal, but unlike the numerous other journals now being published online, there is no hefty charge being made to view or download the papers published on it. Congratulations to all those who helped bring the project to fruition.

One of the first papers published is the result of a DNA study of the elephants of Borneo. The generally accepted wisdom has been that the elephant population of Borneo was the result of human introductions, probably around 300-500 years ago. But a large team of researchers, headed by Prithivarj Fernando, from Columbia University, New York, have been able to demonstrate that the elephant population probably diverged from the mainland populations around 300,000 years ago, when Borneo was separated from the mainland. Although the authors do not go as far as suggesting the population should be regarded as a separate species, they do believe that “this study, has profound implications for the fate of Borneo’s largest mammals. Wild Asian Elephant populations are disappearing as expanding human development disrupts their migration routes, depletes their food sources, and destroys their habitat. Recognising these elephants as native to Borneo makes their conservation a high priority and gives biologists important clues about how to manage them.”

Back in 1950 , a taxonomist who seemed to delight in creating new species and subspecies on the sligtest pretext, managed to describe at least 10 subspecies of Asian Elephant, some based on data as scant as a single Medieval stone carving or an early description in Persian. Among these poorly described subspecies was Elephas maximas borneensis, and despite the inadequacy of Deraniyagala's research, if the Bornean population is to have a name, because of the taxonomic laws odf priority, it will be Deraniyagala's authorship that will be associated with the name.

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