Evolving A More Egalitarian Elephant

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A young female named Right Hole puts her trunk over the head and back of another female of similar age with the ID [458]. The two are from different social groups, though they know each other.

Elephants are commonly thought to live in matriarchal societies which rely on the strong leadership and wisdom of elders, with strong age-based dominance hierarchies. Our new study in the journal Behavioral Ecology overturns this view, finding that in fact Asian elephants, unlike African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana), do not exhibit clear dominance hierarchies or matriarchal “leadership” [1]. Continue reading

Bring back the dead or save the living?

Thoughts For Breakfast

No, I’m not talking about zombies.

This post considers two stories in the news last week.  The first, is a new study in Science Advances by Ripple et al. finally spotlighting what we’ve known for a while: herbivores around the world are collapsing, particularly the large charismatic ones. This is bad news not just because they’re iconic species that people love to love, but because they are major components of ecosystems and their disappearance would have widespread cascading effects.

Columbian Mammoth in the George C. Page museum, Los Angeles

The second is an interview on NPR with Dr. Beth Shapiro at UC Santa Cruz on her new book How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction.  It leads with the question “If science could clone a mammoth, could it save an elephant?”

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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

Trackways freeze time to reveal ancient elephant sociality

An artist’s reconstruction of what the ancient herd may have looked like, here showing Stegotetrabelodon

The evolution of behavior is tricky to study for one very simple reason: behaviors usually don’t fossilize.  While anatomy can be reconstructed based on skeletal remains and imprints, how might one glimpse how a living, breathing organism behaved millions of years ago? Continue reading