In memory of Taj the elephant

Alice McCarthy, January 19th, 2011 | Filed under
  • The Asian elephant
    Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

I saw a mention today that the purported oldest elephant in North America died yesterday at the age of 71. Taj, who resided at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, was an Asian elephant - a smaller elephant compared with the African savannah elephant, Loxodonta africana. Aside from being long-lived, Taj also appears to have had an artist's sense creating paintings sold for charity.

Elephants are a favorite here at the Broad and one of the animal groups at the center of our Vertebrate Biology Group. We first sequenced the genome of Taj's cousin, the African elephant and continue to work on understanding the genetic variations between elephant species, including the Asian and African forest elephants. Recently, researchers associated with the Broad and the Max Planck Institute in Germany published a study comparing the DNA from African elephants, including their relationship to the Asian elephant, extinct woolly mammoths and the American mastodon. It was the first time the five big mammals were compared genetically. Seems that Taj was more genetically related to the woolly mammoth than with his African compatriots.

It's more than fun facts. Having the tools available to compare the genetic identity not only of elephant species, but of individual elephants, may eventually be a help to conservationists seeking to limit the illegal ivory trade.