Jackals and Turtles and Elephants, Oh My!

By Michael Pardo, Cornell University 

Monday, March 3, 2014

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[174], [036] and their calves spotted at Teak Reservoir

Sometimes it’s easy to become so focused on elephants that I forget about the other fascinating creatures that share their habitat.  This afternoon, we were watching [174], [036], and their calves at the edge of the Teak Reservoir when a large gaggle of tourist jeeps frightened them off.

We decided to stay put for a few minutes after the tourists left, in the hope that the elephants might return.  No such luck, but our patience was rewarded with something else. Continue reading

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A new arrival

By Michael Pardo, Cornell University

Monday, February 10:

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I gazed out on Uda Walawe National Park for the first time in over a year as our jeep trundled through the entrance gate.  I welcomed the cool morning air that I knew would swiftly turn hot as the sun climbed higher in the sky.  Dark clouds loomed threateningly overhead, but they were all bluff.  Uda Walawe is experiencing something of a drought this year—while we were driving to the park I noticed that the roaring river I remembered from last December had been replaced by a wide strip of boulders and trees.

Drought does have its advantages though.  The ponds and reservoirs in the park had receded, baring flat, open areas that stood out in stark contrast to the dense shrubs and trees blanketing most of the habitat.  I knew that if we were lucky enough to encounter elephants at any of these waterholes, I would have a clear line of sight for behavioral observations. Continue reading

Six year update on the Uda Walawe elephants

The Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project is now approaching eight years, a unique study of Asian elephants.  Because elephants are such long-lived animals, it takes a long time to understand them – particularly for important variables like who reproduces and how often.  Studies of wild African elephants have been conducted at multiple sites over 10 years or more (in some cases as many as 40!), but this has not been the case for the Asian species in the wild. There have been long-term records of Asian elephants  populations in captivity from places like Myanmar, where they have long been used in timber camps, and it’s interesting to see how the two compare.

This past December we published a comprehensive paper analyzing six years of data on the wild Asian elephants of Uda Walawe National Park, Sri Lanka. This paper is one of a kind as it has been difficult for researchers to successfully monitor wild Asian elephants due to the difficulty of their habitats, and the logistical challenges of conducting steady research over longer time periods.

Tailless was one of the venerable elders of our population. She was especially important for this study for two reasons: she was unmistakable even after dying due to her uniquely broken tail, and her jaw was recoverable. The wear on her teeth showed her age to be around 60 or more, meaning female elephants in Uda Walawe can potentially live out their full lifespans.

Tailless was one of the venerable elders of our population. She was especially important for this study for two reasons: she was unmistakable even after dying due to her uniquely broken tail, and her skull and jaw were recoverable. The wear on her teeth showed her age to be around 60 or more, meaning female elephants in Uda Walawe can potentially live out their full lifespans. We aged other females in the population relative to Tailless.

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Help Support Michael Pardo’s “Elephant Grammar” Project!

By Michael Pardo, Cornell University

The first time I saw wild Asian elephants was last December, in Uda Walawe National Park, Sri Lanka.  As a first year Ph.D. student at Cornell University, I was trying to come up with a project, and was considering this park as a potential field site.  I was struck by the sheer variety of sounds that the elephants made.  Yes, they gave the well-known trumpets, but they also produced roars that carried for miles, rumbles so low-pitched that my human ears could barely detect them, and squeaks that sounded more like a dog’s chew toy than an elephant.  Why do these animals have so many different calls?  What do these calls mean?  The truth is, no one knows.  In fact, we know surprisingly little about how Asian elephants behave in the wild—even less than we know about their African cousins.  I’ve made it my business to uncover some of the secrets of Asian elephant communication—and hopefully get my Ph.D. in the process! Continue reading

The “Elephant Grammar” Project at Uda Walawe National Park

By Mickey Pardo, Cornell University

Do Asian elephants have grammar?  I aim to find out why Asian elephants combine different calls into sequences by recording vocalizations, playing them back to the elephants, and observing their responses.  From January to July 2014 I will collect video and audio recordings of the elephants in Uda Walawe National Park, Sri Lanka, and I will also conduct some preliminary playback experiments to determine the meanings of different calls.  However, this work is extremely expensive, and because my research is not covered by my advisor’s grants, I am responsible for funding 100% of my project on my own.  To help raise the money I need, I have started a crowd funding campaign on the platform Microryza.  The idea is to raise a significant amount of money via many small donations.  The funds that I raise through this campaign will be used to help pay for 4×4 vehicles that I need to transport myself, my field assistants, and my equipment inside the park.  If you donate to my campaign, I will send you periodic updates from the field, including photos and videos of the elephants I study.  Here is a link to my project:  https://www.microryza.com/projects/do-asian-elephant-calls-have-grammar-like-elements

You can find previous posts from the field at the links below:

Linnaeus’ Asian elephant – or not?

Very recently, an article from the Zoological Journal of the Linnaean Society was released regarding the mix-up of Linnaeus’ identification of the species Elephas maximus, or the Asian elephant. In 1764 Linnaeus documented a preserved elephant fetus (which is held today at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm) as E. maximus in his studies. He believed it to have originated in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and this was long established as the so-called ‘type’ specimen of the species. Since Linnaeus never distinguished between Asian and African elephants, the true identity of the fetus has been in question and many suspected it to resemble the African species. Cappellini et al. decided to put the issue to rest and conducted ancient protein and DNA sequencing analysis to determine the true identity of the elephant fetus syntype. It just so happens that the fetus is in fact of the African elephant, in the genus Loxodonta.

An illustration of the elephant fetus from the Swedish Museum of Natural History referred to by Linnaeus

An illustration of the elephant fetus from the Swedish Museum of Natural History referred to by Linnaeus

This created quite a quandry because a new type specimen would have to be designated for reference, and according to the taxonomists’ rules, it could not be any arbitrary individual but preferably one that Linneaus had listed in his notes. At first it appeared a tooth fragment might be next possible canditate, which seemed rather unsatisfying since it was not an intact animal.  But luckily, Linnaeus had also cited a text by John Ray in which he describes the skeleton of an elephant. Apparently this skeleton, which had belonged to a touring performing elephant, is still intact at the Natural History Museum of Florence and was also thought to have originated from Sri Lanka. After analyzing the elephant skeleton’s DNA, Cappellini et al. were able to determine that the elephant was indeed the very specimen referred to in Linnaeus’ notes. E. maximus!

The E. maximus skeleton at the Natural History Museum of the University of Florence,

The E. maximus skeleton at the Natural History Museum of the University of Florence, the new type specimen if approved by the society.

Interested in learning more details on the Cappellini et al. article? Go here: http://www.nature.com/news/linnaeus-s-asian-elephant-was-wrong-species-1.14063

ResearchBlogging.org
Cappellini, E, A Gentry, E Palkopoulou, Y Ishida, D Cram, A Roos, M Watson,, US Johansson, B Fernholm, P Agnelli, F Barbagli, DTJ Littlewood, CD Kelstrup, JV Olsen, AM Lister, AL Roca, L Dalen, & MTP Gilbert (2013). Resolution of the type material of the Asian elephant, Elephas maximus Linnaeus, 1758 (Proboscidea, Elephantidae) Zoological Journal of the Linnaean Society, 1-10 DOI: 10.1111/zoj.12084

Asian elephants distinguish the calls of feline predator species

In September, Vivek Thuppil and Dr. Richard G. Coss from UC Davis published a paper in the journal Biology Letters regarding wild Asian elephant behavior towards pre-recorded tiger and leopard growls while attempting to crop raid. They found out that elephants silently retreat from tiger growls, but aggressively vocalize their presence when confronted with leopard recordings. According to previous research, tigers tend to prey on elephant calves while leopards are essentially harmless. This study is the first to investigate the inner-workings of elephant antipredator behavior at night.

Direction in which elephants emerge from the forest to trigger playback (courtesy of Vivek Thuppil)

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