Rambo, the Romeo

Guest post by Christin Minge

Rambo at his habitual location.

Rambo at his habitual location.

Male Asian elephants live rich social lives with a complex dynamic structure. They are often seen as solitary, but also frequently associate and interact with other males or female-groups depending on a variety of interconnecting factors, including life history, male dominance and alternative mating strategies, male and female sexual states and a complex feedback loop of social relationships with other elephants – just to name a few (Chelliah and Sukumar, 2013; 2015). The magnitude and consequences of sociality in male elephants are far from being explored yet, which is an emerging area of interest for the Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project. Simply speaking, mature males are expected to associate and interact with female-groups more during their reproductively active periods and are more solitary or in male-male associations during reproductively inactive periods. Continue reading

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How early life may influence the way elephants age

Guest post by Hannah Mumby, Myanmar Elephant Project / University of Sheffield

Elephant babies in myanmar

Elephant calves at a logging camp in Myanmar. Image courtesy of Hannah Mumby.

There are a great many reasons to study elephants; they’re endangered, highly social, quite frankly huge and hold a unique and central place in many cultures. They can also be very strong, sometimes dangerous and slow to do what you want. But that’s not enough to stop me from working on them! One of my interests is actually their life cycles. In the past I’ve studied humans and non-human primates and the fact that elephants evolved long lives, almost on a par with our own, but on a separate evolutionary trajectory was fascinating to me. Elephants also usually only have one calf at a time and each calf is dependent on its mother for many years. These characteristics allow us to test a lot of ideas underpinning theories of life history and ageing, including ones that have been primarily designed with humans in mind.

So why is this interesting? Continue reading

My first playback trial!

Bashi_&calf

By Mickey Pardo – Cornell University & Open University of Sri Lanka

Friday, May 23, 2014

Doing playback experiments with Asian elephants is harder than it would seem.  The basic idea is straightforward:  I want to know whether Asian elephants can distinguish between the calls of familiar and unfamiliar individuals, so I will play back recordings of familiar and unfamiliar elephants and see if the subjects react differently to them.  But in order to do a playback, so many factors must align at the same time.  The right subject must be present, the original caller must not be present, the group can’t have been exposed to a playback for at least a week, the elephants have to be stationary, they have to be clearly visible and within 50 meters of the road, there can’t be any tourists nearby, and all of these requirements must hold true for at least 15 minutes straight.  Sometimes, it seems about as likely as having your winning lottery ticket reduced to cinders by a lightning bolt.

Continue reading

Who misses the mega-fauna, if they disappear?

Guest post & graphics by Nitin Sekar, Princeton University

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A seedling germinates from elephant dung.

All around the planet, the world’s largest animal species are becoming very rare. Whether we speak of giant tortoises, large wild cows like gaur, rhinoceroses, hippos, tigers, or whales, local extinction or extreme reductions in range size and population are the norm for species that are too big or too slow-reproducing to withstand human conflict or the human hunter. Most people would probably agree that it is a shame to lose these species. But what about functionally? Are the largest animals critical to any ecological processes? When there are declines in honey bee populations, human agriculture suffers; if nitrogen fixing plants are absent from a forest, other plant species may be affected. When the largest animal species go missing, do any other species miss them? Aside from a few cases, we don’t know! This is an active area of research.

We decided to explore the role of Asia’s largest land mammal—the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus)—in seed dispersal, which helps maintain the diversity of tropical forests. 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:

Parting thoughts

Guest post by Michael Pardo, Cornell University

Friday, January 11, 2013

It’s hard to believe that this is my last day in the field.  The past month that I’ve spent at Uda Walawe seems to have gone by so quickly.  Part of me is eager to return to the US, where I will finally be able to sort through all the information that I have collected here.  But I do not want to leave the park and its elephants, and I resolve to savor this final day.

A juvenile plays on a mound.

A juvenile plays on a mound.

Continue reading