By guest blogger: Katey Duffey
The oldest free city, Volantis, in George R.R. Martin’s popular saga is known for its red wine, spices and fine silk. It is also known for its elephants that are used as a means of transport. Along the streets of “Old Volantis”, a smaller species of elephant is a common sight pulling ornate carts -the dwarf white elephant. To avoid confusion from fans of the Game of Thrones TV show who have not read the books, dwarf white elephants appear in A Dance with Dragons, the 5th book. As the name implies, they are much smaller than regular elephants and have hides that are whitish in color.
In our real world, dwarf elephants actually exist. They are the Bornean pygmy elephants, which are found in the lower Kinabatangan floodplain of Malaysian Borneo in the state of Sabah. This endangered subspecies of Asian elephant is 1/5 smaller than the mainland populations, are rounder, have long tails that can sometimes reach the ground and some males have short, straight tusks. Originally thought to be descendants from the Javan elephants of the Sultan of Sulu, pygmy elephants have been genetically distinct for approximately 3,000 years. Unlike their more aggressive cousins on the mainland, pygmy elephants tend to have a gentler demeanor as well.
Why are these elephants so small? According to the Island Rule, or Foster’s Rule observed by J. Bristol Foster in 1964, large mammals will evolve to smaller sizes, while small mammals will evolve to larger sizes than those found on the mainland. Island species also tend to evolve faster, over shorter periods of time than mainland species. The significance of this effect is generally in proportion to the size of an island and the limited amount of resources. Consequently, reduced biodiversity from limited resources can also result in less interspecies competition. In other words, species live more peacefully with each other. This phenomenon may help to explain why pygmy elephants are less cantankerous than mainland Asian elephants. A benefit for many island species is that they are also hardier in response to drastic environmental changes such as famine and drought. Having evolved in an ecosystem with fewer resources, these species are very adaptable for the benefit of their survival.
Photos: Albino African elephant. elephantfacts.net, Bornean pygmy elephants. www.worldwildlife.org & Albino Asian elephants. www.thestar.com
Due to habitat destruction from logging and palm oil plantations, conflicts between humans and pygmy elephants are on the rise. Snares meant for small game are another threat to the elephants, leaving around 20% of the population of 1,000-1,600 to have injuries from being accidently snagged. However, organizations like the World Wildlife Fund are promoting sustainable logging and forest management. Pygmy elephants still survive and breed well in selectively logged forests. Individuals are also being collared so that habitat use can be studied and potential conflicts avoided.
What about white elephants? White elephants are the result of a genetic mutation when there is a lack of pigmentation causing pink skin and eyes, with white hair (albinism), or a reduction in pigmentation causing pale or patchy skin and hair, with normal colored eyes (leucism). Although rare in nature, wild “white” elephants were captured and bred for royal families. They represent wealth, peace and a good future. Seen as a sacred animal in South East Asia, these unique elephants were pampered and extravagantly adorned. Some kings would actually give “lesser quality” white elephants to other noblemen. Since the animals were sacred, they could not work off the costs required to feed them, and to care for their sensitive skin. This “gift” would end up becoming a financial burden leading to bankruptcy that decreased competition among royals. For those who are familiar with the strange and often useless item given at social gatherings that is not worth the cost, the tradition of the royal white elephants are the source of the term “white elephant gift”.
Lister, A.M.(1996). Dwarfing in island elephants and deer:processes in relation to time of isolation. Symposia of the Zoological Society of London, 69: 277-292
Millien, V.(2006). Morphological evolution is accelerated among island mammals. PLos Biology, 4(11):e384.doi10.1371/journal.pbio.oo4o384
Otis,D.(2013). Why Burma Believes in White Elephants (the real ones). www.thestar.com/news/world/2013/07/01/why_burma_believes_in_white_elephants_the_real_ones.html
All the pictures on this blog and social networks belong to their respective authors and proper credits are given. Photos are used for illustrative and educational purposes only.
Todas las fotografías de este blog y redes sociales son propiedad de sus respectivos autores, se mencionan los respectivos créditos. Estas fotos son únicamente utilizadas con fines ilustrativos y educativos.
Sofia Martinez -Villalpando, BSc