Imagining Human-Elephant Coexistence on World Elephant Day

by DJ & SdS

This elephant is on the wrong side of the fence at Uda Walawe National Park.

This elephant is on the wrong side of the fence at Uda Walawe National Park.

Human-wild elephant interactions usually bring negative outcomes. The friction stems from the never ending competition of resources, mainly land. A conflict is defined as a state of mind in which an individual experiences a clash of opposing feelings. When the two species fail to share common resources, a conflict naturally takes place.The discussion must invariably focus on those who live alongside elephants. Their relationships with wild elephants vary. While some think total rejection is the answer, others considers having elephants around is fine as long as they don’t disturb their basic lifestyle.

Is human-elephant coexistence ever possible? Continue reading

How early life may influence the way elephants age

Guest post by Hannah Mumby, Myanmar Elephant Project / University of Sheffield

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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

Life’s Joys and Sorrows

By SdS

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I was honored to receive the President’s Award for Scientific Publication on October 31st 2014.  As I’ve noted elsewhere, this is the result of a lot of hard work by many people. I am most thankful to Sameera Weerathunga and T. Kumara for sticking with a very demanding job despite all challenges, Ms. Nisha Suhood for doing all that is necessary behind the scenes and more, and Dr. Devaka Weerakoon, our longtime collaborator at the University of Colombo.  I’m also lucky to have a wonderful and supportive husband, Sergey Kryazhimskiy. And of course where would anyone be without their beloved parents.  Thanks Mom & Dad.

But, in a constant reminder that all good things must pass, I am very sorry to have lost a beloved member of the family.  I cannot write this post without also honoring the memory of Dr. Arkady Kryazhimskiy, my dear father-in-law.  A brilliant mathematician, wonderful father, and gentle human being.  May he rest in peace and may his ideas live on.

 

Hyena girl meets elephant girl – A Chat for Skirts in Science

Some colleagues at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science have started a series featuring conversations by female scientists called Skirts in Science.  The goal is to make women in science more visible to students, especially young women and girls.

I had a lot of fun in this chat with Sarah Benson-Amram, now faculty at the University of Wyoming.  Here is a brief window into our work:

Many thanks to Paula Cushing, Kimberly Evans, and Marta Lindsay for inviting us to be part of this great series.  Check out their channel here.

Part 2 will have a discussion of how we came to do what we do. Stay tuned!

~ SdS

My first playback trial!

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By Mickey Pardo – Cornell University & Open University of Sri Lanka

Friday, May 23, 2014

Doing playback experiments with Asian elephants is harder than it would seem.  The basic idea is straightforward:  I want to know whether Asian elephants can distinguish between the calls of familiar and unfamiliar individuals, so I will play back recordings of familiar and unfamiliar elephants and see if the subjects react differently to them.  But in order to do a playback, so many factors must align at the same time.  The right subject must be present, the original caller must not be present, the group can’t have been exposed to a playback for at least a week, the elephants have to be stationary, they have to be clearly visible and within 50 meters of the road, there can’t be any tourists nearby, and all of these requirements must hold true for at least 15 minutes straight.  Sometimes, it seems about as likely as having your winning lottery ticket reduced to cinders by a lightning bolt.

Continue reading

Who misses the mega-fauna, if they disappear?

Guest post & graphics by Nitin Sekar, Princeton University

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A seedling germinates from elephant dung.

All around the planet, the world’s largest animal species are becoming very rare. Whether we speak of giant tortoises, large wild cows like gaur, rhinoceroses, hippos, tigers, or whales, local extinction or extreme reductions in range size and population are the norm for species that are too big or too slow-reproducing to withstand human conflict or the human hunter. Most people would probably agree that it is a shame to lose these species. But what about functionally? Are the largest animals critical to any ecological processes? When there are declines in honey bee populations, human agriculture suffers; if nitrogen fixing plants are absent from a forest, other plant species may be affected. When the largest animal species go missing, do any other species miss them? Aside from a few cases, we don’t know! This is an active area of research.

We decided to explore the role of Asia’s largest land mammal—the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus)—in seed dispersal, which helps maintain the diversity of tropical forests. 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

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:

An Evening With Elephants

Being A Better Scientist

I am trying out something new this month: I am hosting a fundraising event!

The event will take place on December 21st in San Francisco in the Randall Museum. We’ll show a BBC movie about elephants in Sri Lanka (trailer) and my friend Shermin de Silva will give a talk about her work with these same elephants.

Shermin de Silva

Shermin is an inspiring woman. She runs a field station in Sri Lanka, works in the United States (she is a postdoc in Fort Collins) and manages to raise enough money to keep her research going. This, as you can imagine, is not easy!

Her research is interesting, because she is one of few people who follows individual elephants in a wild Asian elephant population over time. Because she and her field crew know the individual elephants, they can see when elephant friendships form and break. It…

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