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

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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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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.

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The Social Lives of Asian Elephants

Kanthi (far left) and Kamala (far right) were the most inseparable pair of elephants we saw during the study. Members of their social group, the K unit, were often together whenever they were seen.  Yet not all social units were so tightly knit, with individuals being scattered into small groups quite far apart.

Kanthi (far left) and Kamala (far right) were the most inseparable pair of elephants we saw during the study. Members of their social group, the K unit, were often together whenever they were seen.  Yet not all social units were so tightly knit, with individuals being scattered into small groups quite far apart.

Male and female Asian elephants form distinct parallel societies in which adult females and calves move together and form visible groups whereas adult males are typically more solitary.  For many years there have been two somewhat conflicting characterizations of female Asian elephant society.  The classic view, popularly held, is that Asian elephants form very tightly-bonded families centered around older adult females known as matriarchs.  This view is adapted wholesale from the many excellent long-term studies of African savannah elephants [1-3], which do exhibit this type of social organization. Continue reading