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Have you ever wondered if other animals could undergo a domestication process similar to dogs, evolving from wild creatures to become gentle and loving companions? An international team of researchers has discovered that elephants might have done just that, but in a surprising twist, they appear to have domesticated themselves!
Domestication is the process of selectively breeding animals (or plants) to make them more suitable for living among humans. This often involves selecting for traits such as a docile temperament and a less threatening appearance. This collection of characteristics, known as ‘domestication syndrome,’ makes animals more compatible with human society.
Back in 2017, anthropologist Brian Hare from Duke University expanded on the concept of domestication syndrome, speculating that it could also apply to humans. The Human Self-Domestication Hypothesis suggests that our evolution was increasingly guided by a preference for less-aggressive, more pro-social partners, resulting in changes to our brains, skulls, and complex language skills.
African and Asian elephants are now being proposed as new examples of self-domestication, having undergone similar selection processes as humans and bonobos. The authors of this study found similarities between these species, such as changes in jaw and cranium shape, teeth reduction, and a propensity for peaceful interactions. These animals also exhibit alloparenting, where offspring are guided and cared for by non-parent adults.
The research team reviewed hundreds of genes thought to be involved in changes to embryonic tissues responsible for domestication. They found evidence that evolution has favored several dozen such sequences in elephants. However, not all traits associated with domestication are present in elephants, as different blocks of traits can fragment and no longer undergo selection.
This self-domestication hypothesis could open the door to the discovery of other animals on a continuum of domestication, such as dolphins, various bird species, or rodents, undergoing similar evolutionary changes to favor social complexity over aggression.
So, what can we learn from elephants and their self-domestication journey? It’s a reminder that prioritizing peaceful guidance, complex emotional expression, and love for one another might be an option open to many social animals. As we strive for a sustainable world, let’s take inspiration from these gentle giants and foster a more compassionate and harmonious relationship with the environment and all its inhabitants.
This research was published in PNAS.
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