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Organisms capture a certain amount of carbon-14 from the atmosphere when they are alive.By measuring the ratio of the radio isotope to non-radioactive carbon, the amount of carbon-14 decay can be worked out, thereby giving an age for the specimen in question.Carbon dating is used to work out the age of organic material — in effect, any living thing.
At the Selous Wildlife Reserve in Tanzania, savanna elephants have declined 66% from 2009 to 2013.“There’s been a staggering rate of elephant loss every year,” Cerling said.
Last year, in a study led by Samuel Wasser of the University of Washington, scientists analyzed the DNA locked in 28 large seizures of ivory (at least half a ton each) made between 19.
”Other people were saying, ’No, no, no, these are all recent deaths.’” As it happens, scientists can figure out exactly how long ago an elephant died thanks to the Cold War nuclear arms race. That carbon-14 spike is recorded in tree rings, in the bottom of the oceans, even in our own teeth.
Because this isotope’s abundance has been declining at a well-known rate since 1963, scientists can use the carbon-14 concentration to tell when a living tissue first formed.
“So indeed, the crisis is severe if we’re going to preserve this species on our planet.”The new findings, coupled with the ability to genetically trace ivory’s origin, will aid efforts to track and tackle this illegal poaching, said George Wittemyer, a conservation scientist at Colorado State University who was not involved in the study.“Because it’s illegal and because it tends to be done by pretty organized criminal syndicate groups, we just are having a lot of difficulty understanding what’s happening, where the goods are being trafficked, where they’re originating, where they’re moving, how they’re moving through the supply chain, who’s involved,” he said.