The floating object task is a puzzle that comparative cognition researchers present to animals (including humans) to study the evolution of cognitive abilities, like cause and effect understanding and the ability to use water as a tool. To solve the task and retrieve the floating reward inside, you must add water to a tube to raise the water level and reach the reward. Some primates, like orangutans have been able to solve the task by carrying water in their mouths from a drinker and spitting it into the tube to reach a peanut.
My colleague, Dr. Sarah Benson-Amram, and I presented this puzzle to elephants for the first time (Barrett & Benson-Amram, 2020). We wanted to see if elephants’ unique trunk morphology would make them well-equipped for the floating object task. Since they spray water for bathing, and hold water in their trunk as a vessel for bringing it to their mouth, we predicted that they would be up for the task. We collaborated with the National Zoo and the Oklahoma City Zoo to carry out this research. We used a tube filled about 1/3 of the way with water, baited with a floating marshmallow. As is often the case with animal research, things did not go as we expected.
These farmers in Sri Lanka are at the interface of forest and agriculture, where most incursions by elephants occur.
In Sherpur, rural Bangladesh, as the human population increases, so does the demand for the land and natural resources that the elephants need to survive. This is a story of human-animal conflict that is repeated around the globe with many species and rural communities as they struggle to find the balance for coexistence. Continue reading →
Or why we shouldn’t take those large odd-looking animals for granted.
Step into any nursery or play room, take a quick walk down the isles of your local bookstore or library. Or just look at the clothing and toys we surround children with. They are full of images of iconic animals – giraffes, rhinoceros, hippos, lions, elephants…
We use these animals to teach the alphabet, and cherish them as beloved characters in our story books. They adorn everything from birthday cards to blankets.
The living elephants – Asian elephant, African forest elephant and African savannah elephant.
Guest post by Michael Pardo
Ask most people what sound an elephant makes and they are likely to think of a trumpet. In reality though, elephants produce an incredible variety of different vocalizations. The most common call is a deep, pulsating rumble, so low-pitched that human observers sometimes feel it more than hear it. Elephants also roar—powerful, bellowing sounds that carry across the landscape. And sometimes, they give combination calls, in which one or two rumbles and roars are stitched together with no pause for breath.
I visited Udawalawe in 2014 to work with the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project, and was especially fascinated by these combination calls. Combining meaningful units into sequences with an additional meaning is a key component of human language, but there are relatively few examples of this phenomenon in other species. Listening to the Udawalawe elephants, I was struck by the fact that they nearly always produced combination calls in the same order: a single roar followed by a single rumble. Why was this? Could it be analogous to grammatical rules in human language? Or could it be as simple as an anatomical constraint that made it difficult for the elephants to produce a rumble before a roar? Continue reading →
Back in 2007, 2008 and 2009 UWERP devoted intensive effort to surveying all parts of the park in order to make an estimate of the elephant population. Ten years on, it is time to re-do this exercise. What that means is that for a few specific months each year, we have to try and cover the park more evenly in space and time than we normally do when studying behavior. The trouble was, the elephants were missing. For much of the preceding weeks elephants had been scarce, so much so that guests were leaving annoyed. This was not unusual – I remembered that during the hottest and driest months, elephants usually stayed in the shade until late afternoon even back then. I supposed they were resting and conserving their energy until nightfall. But we could never know for sure. Continue reading →
An elephant family rests under a tree in the hot midday heat. Situations like this were perfect for the playback experiments.
In October 2007 Lucy King and colleagues first made a splash by reporting that African elephants seemed to be rather put off by bees. I was still in Sri Lanka during my big “data collection year” as a graduate student, trying to figure out the social relationships among Asian elephants and recording vocalizations whenever I got a chance. Lucy’s first paper was a curiosity, but then three years later she followed it up with the even more intriguing finding that African elephants even produce alarm calls specific to bees. This got the attention of my advisor at Penn, Dorothy Cheney, who having expended considerable time thinking about such things as monkey alarm calls, dropped me a one-liner: “Have you seen this?” Continue reading →
A young female named Right Hole puts her trunk over the head and back of another female of similar age with the ID . 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” . Continue reading →
Guest post by Hannah Mumby, Myanmar Elephant Project / University of Sheffield
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.
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?”
Two tusked bulls fighting. Photo by Karpagam Chelliah.
Bull Asian elephants come in two forms: tusk, and tuskless (this is termed dimorphism). It’s long been thought that tusks must confer an advantage in competitions between males for dominance and mating rights. However a recent study by Karpagam Chelliah and Raman Sukumar of elephants at Kaziranga National Park, India, puts a wrinkle on this common story. Continue reading →