E is for “Endangered”

Or why we shouldn’t take those large odd-looking animals for granted.

E is for Endangered

Step into any nursery or play room, take a quick walk down the isles of your local bookstore or library. Or just look at the clothing and toys we surround children with. They are full of images of iconic animals – giraffes, rhinoceros, hippos, lions, elephants…

We use these animals to teach the alphabet, and cherish them as beloved characters in our story books. They adorn everything from birthday cards to blankets.

What would the world be like without them?

Last week the IPBES released a monster report detailing how biodiversity today is threatened by human activities. A splashy number that grabbed a lot of headlines – at least ONE MILLION species are at risk of extinction in coming decades through human activities.

But actually, elephants might not be among them. Good news?

Unfortunately, not if you dig deeper.

Traditionally, a species’ risk of extinction is determined by modelling how likely populations are drop below a certain number within a policy-relevant time frame, say 100 years. The trouble is that elephants and many other iconic large-bodied species can live a long time (if they aren’t hunted), and breed relatively slowly.  While this can make them extremely vulnerable and sensitive to disturbances, the effects need not be visible for a long. LONG. Time.

That means we may fail to recognize that some animal populations are in trouble if we only rely on their risk of extinction.

In a study just published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology & Evolution, we argue that for long-lived slow-breeding species, we need a better way of assessing their vulnerabilities. We propose the concept of a “demographic safe space” based on the idea that there are few crucial biological variables (birth and death rates) that govern whether populations are growing or declining. When these rates are healthy, populations are within the boundaries of the safe space. When they are not, it is a call to action. They key is to measure those variables, also known as vital rates, in the wild.

Elephants are good example of this.

Our long term study at Udawalawe showed that most females typically have just one calf every six years or more, and that they have about a 5% chance of dying even after reaching adulthood. They also mature slowly, typically breeding at around 13 years of age. Contrast this with a species like tigers, in which females are capable of reproducing within just a few years and can produce litters of several kittens per year.

Only around 1.5% of Asian elephants have tusks, all of which are male. Habitat loss, poaching for skins, parts and capture of live animals are leading threats, alongside accidents and human-elephant conflict. Healthy females and calves are keys to the survival of elephant populations.

 

Through a series of simulations, we tested how threats like habitat loss and hunting could affect elephant populations. Our new study shows that elephants are extremely sensitive to changes in birth rates and the mortality rates of females and calves. In the best case scenario, they can tolerate no more than a death rate of 8% among adult females. Male mortality, on the other hand, has very little effect because only a few males are required as breeders. But even populations that are in decline may not go extinct right away if they are large – it’s more like a slow-motion train wreck that happens over hundreds of years. In smaller populations the effects are more dramatic

The study highlights a little-appreciated fact: the biggest threat to Asian elephants is habitat loss, followed by illegal trade in live animals and body parts (see here and here).  The demographic consequences may be hidden, and take a long time coming but they can be insidious. Many elephant populations in Asia are already so fragmented that they number in the tens or hundreds. The way to recover these populations is to focus on improving the survival of females and calves, as well as their breeding rates, To do that, we need to address issues like land-use change alongside illegal trafficking. Conservation efforts also need to place much greater emphasis on the distinct populations that constitute a species, and whether they are healthy, than on ballpark estimates of how many individuals of the species there are throughout their range. The idea of “demographic safe space” helps to identify which populations are healthy, and which ones aren’t.

The data for this paper come from just a handful of studies – for most elephant populations, we have no idea whether they are within their demographic safety limits. Indeed, we don’t know if this is the case for many of slow-breeding iconic species, especially those large enough to be called “megafauna,” and many of which are herbivores like elephants. Think: Giraffes, Rhinos, Hippos. This paper urges that we are desperately in need of assessments for these threatened species, before the demographic train plunges off an unseen cliff.

Demographic inertia is like a train – very hard to reverse course once it gets going downhill.

There is good news here though – by measuring and identifying the vital rates that are most in need of improvement, we hope that the wildlife managers, conservationists, policy makers and the public can rally together in time to save these beloved species.


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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

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

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

We’re part of the #SciFund challenge!

There are at least two kinds of science today – a) the kind that requires millions of dollars, a small army of techs and postdocs, and many fancy doo-dats or whatsits and b)everything else. The latter doesn’t do too well in today’s funding climate, which is geared toward funding BIG EXPENSIVE science. A small group of scientists – mostly students – are trying to change all that by appealing directly to the public to fund small, very cool, science projects and earn a nifty little reward of thanks. The projects are diverse – everything from zombie fish to next-generation algae technology.  The result: The #SciFund Challenge! Help us help elephants – and help science along the way!

WANT TO HELP?

http://www.rockethub.com/projects/3707-help-us-help-elephants-people-in-sri-lanka

Please share the link above to help us reach our goal!

Check out all the other projects here:

http://www.rockethub.com/projects/scifund

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