While trade involving elephant ivory is illegal, marketing ivory from extinct animals is not. This has led to an increase in sales of mammoth tusk ivory, posing new challenges for customs agents worldwide as the two sources of ivory can be challenging and time-consuming to differentiate. Such illicit commerce may be curbed with a laser-based method devised by researchers in the U.K. to distinguish between illegal elephant ivory and legal mammoth tusk ivory to aid enforcement officials.

A new Raman spectroscopy technique advanced by scientists from London Natural History Museum, University of Bristol, University of Birmingham and Lancaster University rapidly distinguishes between these materials based on small measuring differences in mineralization and collagen composition of tusks. The technique was applied to mastodon, Asian elephant and African bush elephant tusk samples, after which the spectral data was analyzed using principal component analysis and a specialized MATLAB script. A higher crystal maturity was observed for mastodon tusk samples compared to those from living elephant species.

The method described in PLoS ONE proves a viable option that enables rapid non-destructive identification of the sample. Preliminary data also suggests the analytical approach could be used to identify which part of the tusk the sample came from as well as potentially differentiate between individual elephant species. The development of handheld and portable Raman spectrometers can help speed monitoring of such samples and deter ivory poaching activities.

To contact the author of this article, email shimmelstein@globalspec.com