Dwarf elephant battles musth male!

16 June 2014 – S. de Silva

Battle1A clear sunny day, Lucy and Mickey are off in the park with Sameera while Kumara and I stay behind to catch up on office work. It’s mid-morning when Sameera calls to tell us Walawe Kota is back!  Walawe Kota is the nickname we’ve given the dwarf elephant of Uda Walawe.  This would be at least the third year now. What’s more, he’s in musth and reportedly fighting another male.  At first, the news is a bit confusing – there’s mention of a possible injury.

I’ve never seen him in the flesh though Kumara and Sameera have. I’ve only seen pictures and video clips, so I’m eager to try our luck. The park office reports he’s been spotted not far from the entrance, so we hop in our Jeep and dash off in hopes he’s still out in the open. Continue reading

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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

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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EARS ID Database released

ears

We are pleased to release EARS (Elephant Attribute Recording System), designed by intern Ilja Van Braeckel. EARS is an MS Access database that permits quick searching of elephant ID photos. Users enter new ID features using a simple Excel worksheet which can be copied directly into Access. They can then query the database with a set of check-boxes for prominent natural features of individuals, which returns matching IDs and photos.  This should narrow the search substantially and cut down search time.  We recommend that a separate set of high-resolution ID photo files are maintained in parallel at another location and that once the search is narrowed final identifications are confirmed using these external files. The idea is for the database to aid, not replace, more detailed photos and human memory.

We share this tool freely hoping it will help others conduct individual-based studies of Asian elephants, and modifications may be made as required. Variations of it may also be useful for other species and contexts.

The database, excel sheet and a user manual can be found at:

http://trunksnleaves.org/resources.html

de Silva S, Webber CE, Weerathunga US, Pushpakumara TV, Weerakoon DK, et al. (2013) Demographic Variables for Wild Asian Elephants Using Longitudinal Observations. PLoS ONE 8(12): e82788. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0082788

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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