The elephant is an extraordinary animal — the largest land animal today, living up to 70 years, and weighing up to 12,000 kg. Due to hunting and habitat destruction, the elephant population has dwindled from millions to less than 500,000 individuals today, resulting in the elephant being made a protected species worldwide. Elephants have been long studied in many fields, including ecology, behavior, genetics, and neuroscience. They are especially interesting to those who study mammalian evolution, as elephants have been substantially modified from the ancestral mammalian body plan, making them well-suited to the study of body growth and macroevolutionary developmental changes. The outlier status of the elephant can be partially explained by its membership in Afrotheria, the first of the four superorders of placental mammals to diverge from the rest. The elephant will be the first Afrotherian species to have its genome fully sequenced, and since Afrotheria is the deepest node of eutherians, we expect the elephant genome sequence to be particularly useful for the reconstruction of the ancestral eutherian genome.
The Broad Institute has sequenced the African savannah elephant, Loxodonta africana, to full (7X) coverage. We are also in the process of sequencing five other elephants to low coverage (2 African forest elephants, 2 Asian elephants, and one additional African savannah elephant) for a SNP discovery project. This project will be used to study the phylogeographic genomic diversity of elephants, and will help in conservation efforts including legal investigations of the ivory trade.