Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Elephant Genetics

Scientists know little about the size and structure of wild elephant populations and the genes they need to survive.

National Zoo scientists are working with local partners to conduct vital elephant population biology and genetic research using a combination of non-invasive genetic techniques with satellite tracking and other methods.

This program is:

  • Developing novel, rapid and inexpensive non-invasive genetic methods for identifying individual elephants and monitoring populations
  • Identifying genes that can help us manage health threats to elephants at zoos and in the wild
  • Conducting ancient DNA analyses to determine how past genetic structure can inform current management strategies
  • Using genetic tools to map the social structure and behavior of wild Asian elephants

Getting a blood sample from an elephant is relatively simple, but the National Zoo also uses non-invasive techniques to answer questions about elephant disease, evolution, and genealogy. This involves collecting DNA from items that the animals naturally leave behind—including feces (scat, dung), hair, saliva, and shed skin. Such non-invasive procedures make it easier to collect samples in the field.

The Zoo’s genetics lab has conducted systematic and phylogeographic analyses on Asian elephants to answer questions related to the genetic diversity of Asian elephants and the need to preserve them.

Geneticists at the Zoo successfully analyzed part of the complex gene family that helps determine how resistant elephants are to the type of infectious diseases that have been devastating to their species, including tuberculosis and the herpes virus. Researchers at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, with collaborators, were the first in the world to “characterize,” or interpret and describe, these genes in elephants.

During this work, Zoo researchers also found that Asian and African elephants may have evolved genetically in response to a past disease epidemic.