Elephants are large-brained, social mammals with a long lifespan. Studies of elephants can provide insight into the aging process, which may be relevant to understanding diseases that affect elderly humans because of their shared characteristics that have arisen through independent evolution. Elephants become sexually mature at 12 to 14 years of age and are known to live into, and past, their 7th decade of life. Because of their relatively long lifespans, elephants may have evolved mechanisms to counter age-associated morbidities, such as cancer and cognitive decline. Elephants rely heavily on their memory, and engage in multiple levels of competitive and collaborative relationships because they live in a fission-fusion system. Female matrilineal relatives and dependent offspring form tight family units led by an older-aged matriarch, who serves as the primary repository for social and ecological knowledge in the herd. Similar to humans, elephants demonstrate a dependence on social bonds, memory, and cognition to navigate their environment, behaviors that might be associated with specializations of brain anatomy. Compared with other mammals, the elephant hippocampus is proportionally smaller, whereas the temporal lobe is disproportionately large and expands laterally. The elephant cerebellum is also relatively enlarged, and the cerebral cortex is highly convoluted with numerous gyral folds, more than in humans. Last, an interesting characteristic unique to elephants is the presence of at least 20 copies of the TP53 tumor suppressor gene. Humans have only a single copy. TP53 encodes for the p53 protein, which is known to orchestrate cellular response to DNA damage. The effects of these multiple copies of TP53 are still being investigated, but it may be to protect elephants against multiple age-related diseases. For these reasons, among others, studies of elephants would be highly informative for aging research. Elephants present an underappreciated opportunity to explore further common principles of aging in a large-brained mammal with extended longevity. Such research can contribute to contextualizing our knowledge of age-associated morbidities in humans.
- animal model
- comparative aging research