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Re: Pygmy elephants of the congo
posted Mon, Jan 1 2007, 5:45am
The history of the so-called “pygmy elephant” is a mixed bag. While we know smaller elephants exist, their taxonomic status and acceptance is not on firm ground.

In 1906 Theodore Noack described the pygmy elephant within an entry entitled “A dwarf Form of the African Elephant” within Annals and Magazine of Natural History. The type specimen of this new elephant was collected by Carl Hagenbeck and it was eventually brought to New York’s Bronx Zoo. Named Congo, it lived there for 9 years more. At its death, the elephant stood 2 metres tall (around 6 ½ feet), and was around age 15 years. This 1906 description gave the pygmy elephant the designation as Elephas pumilio (the previous genus name for the elephant was Elephas which has now shifted to Loxodonta, so Noack’s specimen can also be ascribed therefore as Loxodonta pumilio).

Henri Schouteden described another specimen in the 1914 entry “L’elephant nain du Lac Leopold II” in Revue Zoologique Africaine. Schoutenden’s specimen was collected by Lietenant Franssen in 1911 and has been dubbed the “water elephant”. It was given the designation Elephas fransseni (again current terms would be Loxodonta fransseni). This specimen was just under 5 ½ feet tall. Whether this specimen was the same as the 1906 Noack is debateable, but even Bernard Heuvelmans suspected it was quite likely the 1911 specimen was actually the same speciation as the 1906 description, and thus a confusing designation name game.

More specimens were reported over the years. Then in a 1932 an entry in Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia entitled “The Forest Elephant of Africa” stated that the most likely explanation for the pygmy elephants was as a juvenile form of the forest elephant. This piece was authored by Glover Allen.

This flipped again in an 1950 entry entitled “Note relative a un elephant nain du Gabon” in Mammalia. The authors, Edouard Bourdelle and Francis Petter outlined the work they did upon studying a specimen in 1948, and the animal stood just under 6 ½ feet tall.

So the series flipped, then flopped, then flipped, then flopped.

Bernard Heuvelmans wrote in his On the Track of Unknown Animals in the mid-1950’s (depending on which edition and language) regarding the status and classification game on these elephants. He considered the pygmy elephant to be a sub-species of Loxodonta Africana. This continued, and does still, with classification from an ecological subspecies to just unusually small specimens.

In 1989 another publication occurred (there were others subsequent as well). The 1989 piece entitled “Gibt es zwei Elelfantenarten in Afrika?” within Zeitschrift des Kolner Zoo was spurred by a late 1986 piece by David Western entitled “The Pygmy Elephant: A Myth and a Mystery” within Pachyderm. The 1989 piece by Martin Eisentraut and Wolfgang Bohme reviewed all the current information, field work and anatomical / field studies. They concluded that the unique speciation classified by Noack in 1906 was correct and that the pygmy elephant was a distinct species. This was re-iterated again , as well as a more in-depth history than here, in the ÍSC Newsletter of Spring 1990 (volume 9, no 1).

But the story didn’t stop, and there is still ongoing debate. A paper called “Status of the so-called African pygmy elephant: phlogeny of cytochrome b and mitochondrial control region sequences” within CR Biologies (multiple authors, R. Debruyne, A. Van Holt, V. Barriel and P. Tassy) look at genetic markers. Their conclusion is that Loxodonta pumilio should be abandoned, as the pygmies are not a distinct species due to “…The internal structure of this clade reveals to depend on isolation and remoteness between populations, characteristics that may have been extensively influenced by climatic variations during the Quaternary period.”

Now to make this even more confusing, there is an established “pygmy elephant” from Borneo. This was confirmed in 2003 through genetic tests and made the fourth sub-species of Asian elephants.

So we have the following accepted species of elephant:

Loxodonta africana - African bush elephant
Loxodonta cyclotis – African forest elephant
Elephas maximus indicus - Indian elephant
Elephas maximus maximus - Sri Lankan elephant
Elephas maximus sumatrensis Sumatran elephant
Elephas maximus borneensis Borneo (pygmy) elephant


The Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) therefore has four acknowledge sub-species and the African elephant (Loxodonta africana and Loxodonta cyclotis) has 2-species. You will often see the African elephants still grouped as sub-species of Loxodonta Africana as well.

So there, in brief, is an abridged history of the pygmy elephant. The African style (Congo) are still not accepted firmly zoological as a species distinct from the other 2-varities in Africa. Wherein we do have a smaller Borneo one that has been accepted as a sub-species of the Asian variety.

Isn’t the zoological nomenclature game fun…..


Craig Heinselman
Peterborough, NH
cheinselman@verizon.net
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