Dwarf elephant battles musth male!

16 June 2014 – S. de Silva

Battle1A clear sunny day, Lucy and Mickey are off in the park with Sameera while Kumara and I stay behind to catch up on office work. It’s mid-morning when Sameera calls to tell us Walawe Kota is back!  Walawe Kota is the nickname we’ve given the dwarf elephant of Uda Walawe.  This would be at least the third year now. What’s more, he’s in musth and reportedly fighting another male.  At first, the news is a bit confusing – there’s mention of a possible injury.

I’ve never seen him in the flesh though Kumara and Sameera have. I’ve only seen pictures and video clips, so I’m eager to try our luck. The park office reports he’s been spotted not far from the entrance, so we hop in our Jeep and dash off in hopes he’s still out in the open. 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

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

Six year update on the Uda Walawe elephants

The Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project is now approaching eight years, a unique study of Asian elephants.  Because elephants are such long-lived animals, it takes a long time to understand them – particularly for important variables like who reproduces and how often.  Studies of wild African elephants have been conducted at multiple sites over 10 years or more (in some cases as many as 40!), but this has not been the case for the Asian species in the wild. There have been long-term records of Asian elephants  populations in captivity from places like Myanmar, where they have long been used in timber camps, and it’s interesting to see how the two compare.

This past December we published a comprehensive paper analyzing six years of data on the wild Asian elephants of Uda Walawe National Park, Sri Lanka. This paper is one of a kind as it has been difficult for researchers to successfully monitor wild Asian elephants due to the difficulty of their habitats, and the logistical challenges of conducting steady research over longer time periods.

Tailless was one of the venerable elders of our population. She was especially important for this study for two reasons: she was unmistakable even after dying due to her uniquely broken tail, and her jaw was recoverable. The wear on her teeth showed her age to be around 60 or more, meaning female elephants in Uda Walawe can potentially live out their full lifespans.

Tailless was one of the venerable elders of our population. She was especially important for this study for two reasons: she was unmistakable even after dying due to her uniquely broken tail, and her skull and jaw were recoverable. The wear on her teeth showed her age to be around 60 or more, meaning female elephants in Uda Walawe can potentially live out their full lifespans. We aged other females in the population relative to Tailless.

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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:

Asian elephant imitates Korean speech

Koshik is a 12-year-old male Asian elephant housed at the Everland Zoo in South Korea.  For some years he had been a local star that was the subject of some internet fame due to his uncanny ability to produce human-like sounds.  Not only this, but they actually seemed to resemble Korean words.

In a new paper in the journal Current Biology by Angela Stoeger and colleagues, Koshik’s vocalizations were put to the test.  Could he really produce words, as trainers claimed?

The researchers recorded Koshik’s special utterances and played them back to a panel of native Korean speakers who had never heard him before. These participants did not know who was producing the sounds or what they were supposed to mean. They were then asked to write down the words they heard.  They found that Koshik’s call resembled five Korean words: ‘‘annyong’’ (hello), ‘‘anja’’ (sit down), ‘‘aniya’’ (no), ‘‘nuo’’ (lie down), and ‘‘choah’’ (good).  He appeared to be very good at reproducing the vowels in each of the words, but the consonants were more problematic.  “Choah” for instance was interpreted sometimes as “boah” (look) and “moa” (collect) by the human listeners.

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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

The Social Lives of Asian Elephants

Kanthi (far left) and Kamala (far right) were the most inseparable pair of elephants we saw during the study. Members of their social group, the K unit, were often together whenever they were seen.  Yet not all social units were so tightly knit, with individuals being scattered into small groups quite far apart.

Kanthi (far left) and Kamala (far right) were the most inseparable pair of elephants we saw during the study. Members of their social group, the K unit, were often together whenever they were seen.  Yet not all social units were so tightly knit, with individuals being scattered into small groups quite far apart.

Male and female Asian elephants form distinct parallel societies in which adult females and calves move together and form visible groups whereas adult males are typically more solitary.  For many years there have been two somewhat conflicting characterizations of female Asian elephant society.  The classic view, popularly held, is that Asian elephants form very tightly-bonded families centered around older adult females known as matriarchs.  This view is adapted wholesale from the many excellent long-term studies of African savannah elephants [1-3], which do exhibit this type of social organization. Continue reading