New pan-Indian study of elephant genetics reveals surprises

Herd of elephants in Terai Arc Landscape

Asian elephants were once widely distributed in India, but are now restricted to four widely separated regions: the north-western (NW), north-eastern (NE), east-central (ECI), and the southern India (SI). When you undertake the population genetics study of a wildlife species, the quality of the result is related to the design of the field sampling protocol. This is to ensure that the sampling is extensive covering different areas to avoid over-sampling of more accessible populations. When we started our population genetics study of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus L.), we planned to collect fresh elephant dung samples from across the beats and various ranges of protected forests in India. This of course often involved traversing through inhospitable and difficult terrain with a forest staff in attendance. The first problem were the elephants themselves. To get fresh dung, one had to go close to elephants for collecting samples. This often did not go down too well with some individuals who responded to the invasion by a determined charge. We were fortunate not to have suffered any mishaps and ultimately it worked out well and we were able to collate an impressive database of elephant dung samples.


Habitat loss and fragmentation afflicts elephant habitats which can result in loss of genetic variation and reduction in gene flow that could impact their fitness and survival over the long term. Assessing genetic diversity and on-going gene flow between and within these sub-populations can provide insights into how these populations can be conserved. Rahul De, the first author carried out the DNA analyses using 14 microsatellite markers to genetically characterise 169 faecal samples collected by the various co-authors. With the guidance and technical help of Dr. S. P. Goyal, his supervisor and Dr. Reeta Sharma he identified three distinct genetic clusters: the NW, NE and the ECI-SI. This last cluster suggests that these now disjunct elephant populations of the southern and Eastern-Central ranges were once contiguous. However, within each cluster there was significant genetic structuring at finer scales which could be attributed mostly to recent anthropogenic land use changes. Also, elephants being highly intelligent with complex sociality, could prefer mating with populations that are further apart, than close by, thereby creating genetic differentiation at local scales, as we had found in certain cases.

Another lone male

Our study shows that the main concerns are the ongoing genetic differentiation indicating increasing population discontinuity, and the moderate levels of genetic diversity. This shows that although India supports around 60% of the global population of Asian elephants, the risk of further fragmentation and loss of habitat, and the impact of climate change, could affect the long-term viability elephants in India. Therefore, management interventions to maintain intact and connected habitats to enable population growth and movement could help ameliorate these effects.

Mother-calf pair at Dooars (Northern West-Bengal)

References:
De R, Sharma R, Davidar P, Arumugam N, Sedhupathy A, Puyravaud JP, Parida J, Digal DK, Kanagaraj R, Kakati K, Nigam P, Williams AC, Habib B, Goyal SP. (2021) Pan-India population genetics signifies the importance of habitat connectivity for wild Asian elephant conservation. Global Ecology and Conservation, vol. 32. Doi: 10.1016/j.gecco.2021. e01888.

Mongabay article Corridors with high human activity may not ease elephant connectivity: study

Kanagaraj R, Araujo MB, Barman R, Davidar P, De R, Digal DK, Gopi GV, Johnsingh AJ, Kakati K, Kramer‐Schadt S, Lamichhane BR. (2019) Predicting range shifts of Asian elephants under global change. Diversity and Distributions. ;25(5):822-38.

Camera Trapping Elephants in Agricultural Areas

In partnership with Bring The Elephant Home in Thailand, we’re excited to share this picture diary from the field, by Brooke Friswold, who is a PhD student at King Mongkut University of Technology Thonburi!


Written by Brooke Friswold

It has been another busy month in Ruam Thai Village! We have erected ten camera traps on pineapple farms with the consent of local farmers in areas with reported high frequency of visitation and five on lemongrass farmland rented by Bring the Elephant Home.

In speaking with the farmers they were very excited and enthusiastic to share their experience: some of the farmers say that the elephants are coming most nights to their land, while others say it can be weekly or also come in waves, with times of high visitation followed by lapses in appearance. The farmers were very eager and interested to share and discuss where the best placement would be for the camera traps, the trails the elephants use to enter, and the recent visitations they had.

One farmer told us how an elephant came through her farm the night before bleeding and showed us the blood trail – this information was passed on to the local rangers to look out for an injured elephant, highlighting another important use of the camera traps.

For erecting the camera traps we developed a camera trapping apparatus of cementing a steel pole into a tire and then securing the camera traps into specially made metal boxes and then securing them with a lock. 

The process involved using multiple people to carry the (very) heavy poles to an area where the farm plots could be clearly seen and often oriented to face the most likely area of entry – as dictated by the farmers.   

Many of the farms had one or two nearby elephant routes they take to enter and exit the farms. The elephants almost exclusively enter the farms at night from the nearby Kui Buri National Park which borders the village. Kui Buri National Park is also only one of two areas where you can join safaris to see elephants in the wild – making Ruam Thai an interesting area, in that the local community experiences benefits of elephant ecotourism but also challenges regarding crop raiding elephants. 

The first recording of elephant footage for this research was what looked like an adult bull who passed along a pineapple farm using an elephant pathway that the farmer had identified to us, which is also a small dirt road.

The cameras will stay up for another two months continuously during this rainy season and then for another two months in the dry season and we are very excited to see what else we are able to capture! 

When farmers and elephants compete for space

By Lena Coker

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

E is for “Endangered”

Or why we shouldn’t take those large odd-looking animals for granted.

E is for Endangered

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.

What would the world be like without them? Continue reading

How early life may influence the way elephants age

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

Elephant babies in myanmar

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

How does empathy help elephants?

By SdS

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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

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

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.

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

We’re part of the #SciFund challenge!

There are at least two kinds of science today – a) the kind that requires millions of dollars, a small army of techs and postdocs, and many fancy doo-dats or whatsits and b)everything else. The latter doesn’t do too well in today’s funding climate, which is geared toward funding BIG EXPENSIVE science. A small group of scientists – mostly students – are trying to change all that by appealing directly to the public to fund small, very cool, science projects and earn a nifty little reward of thanks. The projects are diverse – everything from zombie fish to next-generation algae technology.  The result: The #SciFund Challenge! Help us help elephants – and help science along the way!

WANT TO HELP?

http://www.rockethub.com/projects/3707-help-us-help-elephants-people-in-sri-lanka

Please share the link above to help us reach our goal!

Check out all the other projects here:

http://www.rockethub.com/projects/scifund