A new arrival

By Michael Pardo, Cornell University

Monday, February 10:


I gazed out on Uda Walawe National Park for the first time in over a year as our jeep trundled through the entrance gate.  I welcomed the cool morning air that I knew would swiftly turn hot as the sun climbed higher in the sky.  Dark clouds loomed threateningly overhead, but they were all bluff.  Uda Walawe is experiencing something of a drought this year—while we were driving to the park I noticed that the roaring river I remembered from last December had been replaced by a wide strip of boulders and trees.

Drought does have its advantages though.  The ponds and reservoirs in the park had receded, baring flat, open areas that stood out in stark contrast to the dense shrubs and trees blanketing most of the habitat.  I knew that if we were lucky enough to encounter elephants at any of these waterholes, I would have a clear line of sight for behavioral observations.

As the morning wore on, the temperature started to rise.  We spotted a few elephants, but they didn’t hang around for long before disappearing into the undergrowth.  Then, around 10:00 AM, we found a family bathing calmly in a medium-sized pond.  We quickly took photos of their ears to identify the individuals—adult females [104] and [149] along with four sub-adult females.  But there was newcomer as well.  As I watched female [104] through binoculars, I noticed the tip of a tiny trunk break the surface of the water like a snorkel.  [104] had a newborn calf.  The calf splashed and played underneath his mother, who was taking long drinks of water by sucking it partway up her trunk and then squirting it into her mouth.  Next to her pillar-like legs, he seemed impossibly minute.

The group climbed out of the water, the infant sandwiched between them.  He appeared to be a bit shaky on his legs, as if he hadn’t quite gotten the hang of using them yet.  [104] stopped to rub some mud on her swollen labia, which seemed irritated, perhaps from giving birth.  Her baby walked on a little further, still hemmed in closely by [149] and a sub-adult female.  The two older elephants stood protectively on either side of the calf, periodically touching him with their trunks as he rolled around in the dirt beneath them.  I wondered if they were doing this to give his mother a reprieve so she could take a mud bath.


As I recorded this behavior on video, I realized that I was witnessing one of the phenomena that make elephants so intriguing.  They are unusually cooperative, taking care of one another’s calves and rarely fighting with fellow group members.  By studying the wild elephants at Udawalawe, I am hoping to gain insight into how Asian elephants communicate with one another.  One idea that fascinates me in particular is the possibility that elephants may use grammatical rules to combine calls into sequences.  This type of complex communication is very rare among animals, and the reason for this may ultimately have to do with cooperation.  Mathematical models have suggested that combining calls together actually makes it easier to deceive others.  In highly competitive societies, this is type of communication is unlikely to evolve, because everyone would be lying all the time and communication would break down completely.  But in more cooperative species, like humans and elephants, there is less of a temptation to communicate deceptively, so it may be easier for grammatical rules to evolve.  For now, the secrets of Asian elephant communication remain an unsolved mystery.  But with a lot of patience and hard work, perhaps we can begin to uncover them.

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