The Buzz about Elephants and Bees

An elephant family rests under a tree in the hot midday heat. Situations like this were perfect for the playback experiments.

by SdS

In October 2007 Lucy King and colleagues first made a splash by reporting that African elephants seemed to be rather put off by bees.  I was still in Sri Lanka during my big “data collection year” as a graduate student, trying to figure out the social relationships among Asian elephants and recording vocalizations whenever I got a chance. Lucy’s first paper was a curiosity, but then three years later she followed it up with the even more intriguing finding that African elephants even produce alarm calls specific to bees. This got the attention of my advisor at Penn, Dorothy Cheney, who having expended considerable time thinking about such things as monkey alarm calls, dropped me a one-liner: “Have you seen this?” Continue reading

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How will Asian elephants react to the sound of bees?

Guest post by Dr. Lucy King – Elephants & Bees Project, Save The Elephants

Apis Cerana, Photo by K. Raveendran

Apis Cerana, Photo by K. Raveendran

I’ve just returned home to Kenya after a fascinating month working with Dr Shermin de Silva and her team at the Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project in Sri Lanka. There have been several productive links between Dr de Silva’s project and ours at Save the Elephants over the years and key to the collaboration has been the ability to compare elephant population ecology between Kenyan and Sri Lankan elephants. However, I went to work in Uda Walawe National Park for an entirely different reason – bees! Continue reading

How does empathy help elephants?

By S. de Silva

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A small family of elephants in Uda Walawe wanders upon a dead calf which does not belong to them. Yet they show great interest, touching and hovering over the body for hours, refusing to let any observers near until they finally decide to move off. Photos: UWERP

In the past week a paper on reassurance behavior in elephants by Plotnik et al. in PeerJ has been generating quite a bit of buzz. The study, which you can learn more about from the researchers themselves here, collected a series of observations on a group of captive elephants in Thailand documenting how they reacted when one of their companions was distressed.  It showed that when some individuals were disturbed in some way and expressed their distress, other individuals approached them and interacted in ways (such as touching, vocalizing) that suggested that they might be trying to comfort or console their companion.  Such behavior would indicate that elephants have the capacity for empathy, along with a handful of other species.

The title of this post is meant to work on at least two levels. First, we might wonder at a biological level – what is the function of the curious  behavior elephants sometimes show toward others in distress? Why might it have evolved? Whom does it benefit? Second, we might wonder at a practical level – should the capacities of elephants endow them with additional conservation value? Should it matter on the ground? So today, the first ever World Wildlife Day, I’d like to examine these two sets of questions, which are very distinct. Continue reading

Thinking like elephants

By: Lisa Barrett, Research Assistant – Think Elephants International, Inc.
Photos: Elise Gilchrist (c) 2014, Think Elephants International, Inc. www.thinkelephants.org

Plotnik3Think Science. Think Education. Think Elephants. That’s our motto at Think Elephants International (TEI), a nonprofit based in northern Thailand.  Founded by Dr. Joshua Plotnik in 2010, TEI’s aim is to conserve wild Asian elephants in Thailand by integrating elephant intelligence research with conservation education programming. We “think elephants” both because we think of elephants when we consider ways to help improve their conservation status, and we also think like elephants in designing our research paradigms. We use scientific research to understand how elephants “see” their world and how we can most effectively save their world. Dr. Plotnik has shown that elephants are both able to pass the mirror self-recognition task (Plotnik et al. 2006) and that they can cooperate together to complete a novel problem (Plotnik et al. 2011). In addition to demonstrating the amazing cognitive abilities of this species, we are also passionate about research that can directly impact conservation techniques to mitigate human-elephant conflict. 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:

Asian elephant imitates Korean speech

Koshik is a 12-year-old male Asian elephant housed at the Everland Zoo in South Korea.  For some years he had been a local star that was the subject of some internet fame due to his uncanny ability to produce human-like sounds.  Not only this, but they actually seemed to resemble Korean words.

In a new paper in the journal Current Biology by Angela Stoeger and colleagues, Koshik’s vocalizations were put to the test.  Could he really produce words, as trainers claimed?

The researchers recorded Koshik’s special utterances and played them back to a panel of native Korean speakers who had never heard him before. These participants did not know who was producing the sounds or what they were supposed to mean. They were then asked to write down the words they heard.  They found that Koshik’s call resembled five Korean words: ‘‘annyong’’ (hello), ‘‘anja’’ (sit down), ‘‘aniya’’ (no), ‘‘nuo’’ (lie down), and ‘‘choah’’ (good).  He appeared to be very good at reproducing the vowels in each of the words, but the consonants were more problematic.  “Choah” for instance was interpreted sometimes as “boah” (look) and “moa” (collect) by the human listeners.

Continue reading

The Mystery Orphan, Part 1

By Ashoka Ranjeewa

– January 28 2011, 3:00 PM –

The newborn calf stayed close to a subadult female, who was very attentive to her.

It was a rainy afternoon. I met Fat-tail with a group at the crest of the Teak waterhole. Amidst the heavy downpour, they were grazing and moving towards Old Mau-Ara Road which is located on the North-east side of the park. When we neared them, Fat-tail came over and stood right next to the jeep.  She was watching us, but it was a friendly look. Fat-tail and Right-hole were part of one of the largest social units we had documented in the past five years – the Rs, named after the oldest female among them, Ragged Ear.  This unit had quite a few adults in it, but the split up during wet seasons.  Fat-tail and Right-hole were a pair that were nearly always seen together and that day was no exception, they were both together along with the calves.

Fat-tail with her juvenile calf.

After few minutes I saw a newborn female calf who was being nursed by a subadult female. Lacking milk, the teenager was unable to actually feed calf. The calf was very tiny, still having the red skin and eyes characteristic of newborns, though covered by lots of hair. It was very active and always moved under the belly of the subadult, though she was definitely too young to be the mother of the calf. I wondered who the mother was. Neither Right-hole nor Fat-tail could be the mother – Right-hole had her own small calf with her.  Fat-tail had had a newborn calf, but sadly, it had died a few months ago though she still had her older calf. She couldn’t give birth to a new calf yet since its takes 22 moths for a pregnancy so the interval between calves is usually at least four to five years. I got  very curious about who the newborn could belong to.
Continue reading