Friday, January 10, 2014

War elephants

The Battle of Raphia
After Alexander the Great's premature death, his vast kingdom was divided among his generals. Being generals, they spent the next three centuries fighting over the land. One historically well known battle, the Battle of Raphia, took place in 217 B.C. between Ptolemy IV, the King of Egypt, and Antiochus III the Great, the King of the Seleucid kingdom that reached from modern-day Turkey to Pakistan.

According to historical records, Antiochus's ancestor traded vast areas of land for 500 Asian elephants whereas Ptolemy established trading posts for war elephants in what is now Eritrea, a country with the northern-most population of elephants in East Africa. In the Battle of Raphia, Ptolemy had 73 African war elephants and Antiochus had 102 Asian war elephants, according to Polybius, a Greek historian who described the battle 70 years later:
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 and that is why Asian elephants were given the name Elephas maximus although it later became clear that African elephants are mostly larger than Asian elephants. Speculations about the reason for this discrepancy went as far as suggestions that there might even have been an extinct smaller subspecies.In 1948, Sir William Gowers reasoned that Ptolemy must have fought with forest elephants that fled from larger Asian elephants, as Polybius described. Until now, the main question remained: Did Ptolemy employ African savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) or African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) in the Battle of Raphia?

Today Eritrea has one of the northernmost populations of African elephants with only about 100 individuals. They have become completely isolated, with no gene flow from other elephant populations. Their conservation is very important Eritrean authorities and such efforts would benefit from an understanding of their genetic affinities to elephants elsewhere on the continent and the degree to which genetic variation persists in the population. Using dung samples from Eritrean elephants researchers from Eritrea and the U.S. have looked at microsatellite data as well as nuclear and mitochondrial markers. Their results:
The sampled Eritrean elephants carried nuclear and mitochondrial DNA markers establishing them as savanna elephants, with closer genetic affinity to Eastern than to North Central savanna elephant populations, and contrary to speculation by some scholars that forest elephants were found in Eritrea. Mitochondrial DNA diversity was relatively low, with 2 haplotypes unique to Eritrea predominating. Microsatellite genotypes could only be determined for a small number of elephants but suggested that the population suffers from low genetic diversity. Conservation efforts should aim to protect Eritrean elephants and their habitat in the short run, with restoration of habitat connectivity and genetic diversity as long-term goals.

This study disproved years of rumors and hearsay surrounding the ancient Battle of Raphia. It seems more likely that Polybius's sources have been largely exaggerating. 

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