Jackals and Turtles and Elephants, Oh My!

By Michael Pardo, Cornell University 

Monday, March 3, 2014


[174], [036] and their calves spotted at Teak Reservoir

Sometimes it’s easy to become so focused on elephants that I forget about the other fascinating creatures that share their habitat.  This afternoon, we were watching [174], [036], and their calves at the edge of the Teak Reservoir when a large gaggle of tourist jeeps frightened them off.

We decided to stay put for a few minutes after the tourists left, in the hope that the elephants might return.  No such luck, but our patience was rewarded with something else.

“Nariyek”, Kumara whispered, and pointed across the water.  I followed his outstretched arm and picked out the small jackal standing on the far bank.  “Dennek innawa”, Sameera corrected, “there are two of them”.  So there were.  Wait for it, there were three!  No, four!  It was an entire family.  Like many members of the dog family, jackals form monogamous pairs, and both partners help raise the offspring.  It seemed that we had encountered a mated pair and their nearly grown pups.  As we watched, one of the pups bounded after a mongoose, before giving up and returning to wrestle with his sibling.  The parents stood nearby, licking one another’s faces.  The pups rolled around in the dirt, before sidling up to their parents and licking their muzzles, a characteristic gesture of submission or appeasement in members of the dog family (it is also very similar to the gesture that small pups use when they want their parents to regurgitate food for them).  The whole family stood still for several minutes, grooming one another and watching us from afar.  What a stroke of luck!  Jackals are easily seen in Udawalawe, but it is rare to witness such intimate moments of their lives.

Flapshell Turtle

As we turned to leave, I spotted something on the bank of the reservoir and asked Sameera to stop the jeep.  It was a flapshell turtle, digging in the soil.  We immediately realized that she must be excavating a hole to lay her eggs.  Wow.  This certainly was a good day for rare behaviors.  Even Sameera, with over seven years of experience, had never seen this before.  She dug a hind foot into the wet sand, strained briefly against it, and flung a clod of dirt out to the side.  Then she dug in the other foot, and strained again, her neck arched and eyes closed with the effort.  Back and forth she alternated.  Left foot.  Right foot.  Left foot.  Right foot.  Every few scoops she paused to rest, before resuming her task.  When the hole was finally deep enough, she lifted herself up in a half pushup, and strained again, squeezing an egg into the hole.  She collapsed back to the ground, her body quivering with the exertion.  Then again she raised her body, and laid a second egg.  After what seemed like an eternity, she had deposited four eggs into the small hole.  Now began the work of covering it back up.  Slowly, the turtle moved her back legs together underneath her, scooping soil back over the eggs.  Again and again she scooped the soil.  When she was seemingly satisfied, she turned around and slipped back into the water.

As we drove on in search of elephants, I reflected on the fact that the wonder of a natural place is not only the sum of the number of different species it sports.  Rather, a great deal of beauty in nature can be found in what the organisms do.  To me, it is every bit as rewarding to see an animal perform an unusual behavior as it is to spot a rare species.  As if to emphasize this thought, a male spotted dove (a common species all too easy to ignore) began pumping his head up and down in front of a female, attempting to court her.

We hadn’t gone far before we spotted a second group of elephants, walking briskly into the brush.  We realized that they must be heading to the Teak Reservoir, and quickly retraced our steps, arriving just as they did.  It was [806] and [175], along with their infants, a sub-adult female, and an older juvenile.  I know by now that [175] and [806] are frequently seen with [174] and [036], so it came as no surprise when most of the group hurriedly left the water and headed off in the direction that [174], [036], and co. had gone just 45 minutes before.  But [806] stayed behind in the pool, drinking and taking her sweet time.  Even her calf had gone with the rest of the group.  After about five minutes, [806] ambled out of the water and seemed to realize that she had been left behind.  She started J-sniffing, which is what we call it when an elephant curls the tip of her low-hanging trunk upwards so that the trunk looks like the letter J.  She swiveled the tip from side to side, testing the air.  She seemed to be trying to figure out which way they had gone.  Then she rumbled twice, low, vibrating sounds that carried across the water to us.

This was an excellent opportunity for me.  It is often difficult to determine which elephant is producing a particular sound, but because [806] was the only elephant in the vicinity, there was no doubt that she was responsible for these vocalizations.  African elephants are known to use rumbles as contact calls to find one another over long distances, and it is likely that Asian elephants use them for a similar purpose.  We didn’t hear any responses, but [806] started heading off purposefully in the direction that the rest of her fellows had gone, still sniffing the air, as well as the ground.  Elephants have poor eyesight, but they have excellent senses of smell and hearing, so it stands to reason that they would rely on these senses to find their way.

I hope I have many more days like today.

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