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Nómade the elephant was born without tusks. Now her mutation is mainstream.

Evolution could help defend elephants from poachers — but that might not be a good thing.

Growing up in war-torn Mozambique wasn't easy for Nómade the elephant.

Mozambique, a southeastern African nation, gained its independence from Portugal in 1975. Then two years later, the Cold War found its way onto Mozambican soil in a bloody conflict that lasted until the mid-1990s and claimed up to a million human lives and displacing even more.

When the human forces weren't directly at each other's throats, they scavenged the savannah for animals they could kill for meat and ivory to trade for weapons or cash. But Nómade survived, along with 11 of her sisters, thanks in part to a miracle mutation that left them without tusks.


Nómade and her family. Photo provided by Joyce Poole/ElephantVoices, used with permission.

By the end of the war, the African elephant population in the Mozambique park where Nómade lived had been reduced by more than 90%.

Half of the females left alive were tuskless, just like Nómade.

Tusks are a crucial survival tool for elephants and, unfortunately, one of the main reasons why people try to kill them. While those lengthy incisors obviously make great weapons, elephants also rely on them for foraging in the dirt for minerals or food as well as scraping bark off trees or bending down branches to reach tasty goods. They're handy as a place to rest those big, heavy trunks on, too.

In typical animal fashion, however, males tend to have the mightier tusks, which they rely on to show off their elephant sexiness. It also means that they get poached in much higher numbers. As a result, the tusklessness gene has only really passed down the maternal side of the African elephant family tree, to elephants like Nómade.

This is the epitome of evolution in action: a rare mutation that grows more common over several generations when it turns out to be a blessing for survival.

Back in the 1930s, tusklessness was estimated to affect about 1% of both African elephant genders; today, there are parts of the continent where 98% of the females are born without tusks. 'Cause who's gonna hunt 'em if there isn't ivory to sell?

Average male tusk sizes in Africa are actually shrinking. But totally tuskless males are still rare, seeing as — erm — lady elephants are less inclined to breed with them. Sorry, fellas. Photo by Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images.

It turns out the same tusklessness that saved these females' lives might also be leaving a lasting impact on the whole of African elephant society.

Elephants are, of course, incredibly smart and social creatures. "But the scars of poaching last a very long time," according to Joyce Poole, Ph.D., co-founder and co-director of the ElephantVoices, a conservation group that works with Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, where Nómade and her family roam.

Having lived under the threat of violence for so long has left many elephants with the equivalent of a broken home, Poole explains. "When a family loses a matriarch, the possibility of calf survival drops because there's no one to take care of the young." For example, the first few times she encountered Nómade, she says, "she was in a different group. A similar configuration of animals, but a different configuration every time." (That's also how she got her name — "nomad" in Portuguese).

To make matters worse, many of the females that do survive past childhood don't even reach full sexual maturity — both from increased stress levels and the fact that, well, there just aren't enough males left to go around, which means they probably aren't going to get pregnant. As a result, the rate of tuskless elephants just keeps going up because the males with tusks are dying out faster than they can be replaced.

Photo by Anna Zieminski/AFP/Getty Images.

"There's also pervasive myth — I'd call it an old wives' tale — that tuskless females are more aggressive than elephants with tusks," Poole says.

To be fair, there are some aggressive tuskless females, particularly in Nómade's family. In another early encounter at Gorongosa, one of Nómade's sisters led a massive mob of more than 30 elephants straight at Poole's safari truck, a move which earned her the name Corajosa, or "Courageous One."

But that behavior wasn't because of her tusklessness, Poole explains. "These are some of the most aggressive elephants in Africa because of what they've been through, and they pass that behavior down from one generation to the next."

Fortunately, Corajosa, Nómade, and the rest of their kin have warmed up to Poole over time. They also have another tool to make up for their lack of tusks: their trunks. "They're such smart animals and the trunk is such a magnificent organ that they are able to compensate," Poole says. "It can push over a tree or caress a baby … it's a magnificent thing to have."

HOORAY, WE STILL HAVE TRUNKS! Photo by Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images.

On one hand, these African "tusklesses" are proof of evolution in progress.

On the other hand, it's also a frightening example of the damage that human intervention can really do. What was once a genetic survival advantage has now become the exact opposite — and it's likely that that trend will continue.

"If we're able to bring poaching and the illegal trade, then over generations, the tusklessness will decline," says Poole. "But that's going to take a long, long time."

There is a silver lining, however. While half of the females who lived through the war in Mozambique are tuskless, only about a third of the elephants born since then have the same condition. And the fact that they can live for upwards of 70 years means that, if things do improve, we'll actually be able to observe the difference across generations. It's one thing to know that nature always finds a way; it's another thing entirely to see that change in action.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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