Elephants as a new animal model for self-domestication

Raviv, L., Jacobson, S. L., Plotnik, J. M., Bowman, J., Lynch, V., & Benítez-Burraco, A. (2023). Elephants as a new animal model for self-domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 120(15): e2208607120. doi:10.1073/pnas.2208607120.
Humans are unique in their sophisticated culture and societal structures, their complex languages, and their extensive tool use. According to the human self-domestication hypothesis, this unique set of traits may be the result of an evolutionary process of self-induced domestication, in which humans evolved to be less aggressive and more cooperative. However, the only other species that has been argued to be self-domesticated besides humans so far is bonobos, resulting in a narrow scope for investigating this theory limited to the primate order. Here, we propose an animal model for studying self-domestication: the elephant. First, we support our hypothesis with an extensive cross-species comparison, which suggests that elephants indeed exhibit many of the features associated with self-domestication (e.g., reduced aggression, increased prosociality, extended juvenile period, increased playfulness, socially regulated cortisol levels, and complex vocal behavior). Next, we present genetic evidence to reinforce our proposal, showing that genes positively selected in elephants are enriched in pathways associated with domestication traits and include several candidate genes previously associated with domestication. We also discuss several explanations for what may have triggered a self-domestication process in the elephant lineage. Our findings support the idea that elephants, like humans and bonobos, may be self-domesticated. Since the most recent common ancestor of humans and elephants is likely the most recent common ancestor of all placental mammals, our findings have important implications for convergent evolution beyond the primate taxa, and constitute an important advance toward understanding how and why self-domestication shaped humans’ unique cultural niche.
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