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Shipwrecked Tusks Analyzed

A shipwreck uncovered in 2008 in Namibia held more than a hundred elephant tusks, which has now enabled researchers to trace back where those elephants had lived, Gizmodo reports.

The boat, the Bom Jesus, was a Portugese merchant vessel that went missing in 1533 while on its way to India, it adds, noting that it was laden with not only ivory, but also gold, silver, tin, and copper.

Researchers led by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Alfred Roca conducted both paleogenomic and stable isotope analyses of the tusks, as they report this week in Current Biology. Based on their genomic analyses, they found that the elephant tusks from the shipwreck belonged to more than 17 forest elephant herds from West Africa. Only four of the haplotypes they uncovered are known among present-day elephants, suggesting the other populations may have been lost to hunting or habitat loss. Isotope analysis, meanwhile, suggested the elephants, though forest elephants, hailed from the savannah and mixed habitats, like those surrounding Portugese trading posts.

In a statement, UIUC's Alida de Flamingh notes that their findings can help ongoing efforts to determine the origins of illegal ivory that has been confiscated.