Help Support Michael Pardo’s “Elephant Grammar” Project!

By Michael Pardo, Cornell University

The first time I saw wild Asian elephants was last December, in Uda Walawe National Park, Sri Lanka.  As a first year Ph.D. student at Cornell University, I was trying to come up with a project, and was considering this park as a potential field site.  I was struck by the sheer variety of sounds that the elephants made.  Yes, they gave the well-known trumpets, but they also produced roars that carried for miles, rumbles so low-pitched that my human ears could barely detect them, and squeaks that sounded more like a dog’s chew toy than an elephant.  Why do these animals have so many different calls?  What do these calls mean?  The truth is, no one knows.  In fact, we know surprisingly little about how Asian elephants behave in the wild—even less than we know about their African cousins.  I’ve made it my business to uncover some of the secrets of Asian elephant communication—and hopefully get my Ph.D. in the process! Continue reading

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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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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.

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Recording elephants

Guest post by Michael Pardo, Cornell University

Monday, December 31, 2012

Batik

Batik and her calf

Last Monday, Sameera and I underwent a grueling six-hour bus ride (each way) to the capital city of Colombo.  Dr. Padmalal, UWERP’s collaborator for this project from the Open University of Sri Lanka, had managed to secure the approval of my research permit, and we went to pick up the document.  The long hours of sweltering heat devoid of any bathroom breaks and punctuated by the blaring of obnoxiously loud horns were worth it.  The permit allows me to record elephant vocalizations, which is, after all, why I came here.  There is only one problem:  the elephants have barely been vocalizing at all.  In fact, they seem to be doing precious little besides eating and walking.  I know that patience is key of course, but it is hard not to become a little discouraged as I wonder whether I will eventually be able to get enough sound recordings to complete my Ph.D. Continue reading

Mating pandemonium

Leakey mounts

Leakey, one of the largest old bulls to appear in the Samburu population, mates with Nicky of The Artists.

Male elephants continue to grow throughout their lives, getting bulkier and broader. Older males enjoy a greater competitive advantage and higher reproductive success. Many have a characteristic time of year when they are seeking mates, and as they get older they increasingly advertise their state with strong-smelling chemical signals in their urine and temporal secretions in a condition termed ‘musth’. Younger bulls, who don’t appear to be signaling consistently or at all, may also try their chances when a receptive female is available.  But they are prone to being chased off by the bigger, more dominant males.

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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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