We’ve temporarily halted field work due to the pandemic. So, we thought this was a good time to bring you some stories from our archives of field notes! In honor of Mother’s Day, here’s an incident that helped us appreciate just how little we understand about what goes on beneath the surface of an elephant’s mind. Happy Mother’s Day!
August 22 2012
Can you tell what’s going on in this video? Well, if you know the elephants individually, there’s quite an intriguing story behind it. Read on to see what’s happening, and see if you can follow the video…
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 →
By Mickey Pardo, Cornell University & Open University of Sri Lanka
Down the Old Mau Ara Road we drove, my head swiveling left and right as I scanned for elephants on the grassy strips to either side. Then we rounded a bend, and Lucy slowed to a stop in front of the herd standing thirty meters away. It was a rather large group: , , , and , along with a number of sub-adults and juveniles.  and a sub-adult female approached slowly to within a few meters of our jeep.
RAAAAAAAHHHHHHH! With no warning, they bellowed in our faces in deafening unison! Continue reading →
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.
By Michael Pardo, Cornell University & Open University of Sri Lanka
From left to right: , ’s four-year old calf, and a sub-adult female resting (this was before they moved to join Tulita under the maila tree)
Tulita, , ’s calf, and a sub-adult female stood nearly motionless under the low-hanging canopy of the maila tree. Their heads drooped low and their trunks rested on the ground as they huddled together in the shade, seeking respite from the blazing noonday sun. The only movement was the occasional swish of a tail, in an attempt to swat away some pesky insect. A group of jabbering tourists pulled up in a small caravan of jeeps, but the elephants paid them no heed. Suddenly, two low growls echoed across the road over the noise of the human onlookers—deep, rumbling sounds like the purring of a truck-sized cat. They were followed by two roar-rumbles, more urgent-sounding vocalizations where a loud bellow precedes the softer rumbling component. One more call emanated from the tall undergrowth before the sub-adult female finally answered it. Her response was immediately answered in turn, initiating a brief exchange of vocalizations between the unseen elephant and the sub-adult under the maila tree. As I scanned the shrubs expectantly, they soon parted, revealing the dust-covered forehead of a small female elephant. The newcomer stepped fully out of the thorny vegetation, displaying ears with a noticeable flap in front and a long, narrow lobe. It was Continue reading →
The first time I saw wild Asian elephants was last December, in Uda Walawe National Park, Sri Lanka. As a first year Ph.D. student at Cornell University, I was trying to come up with a project, and was considering this park as a potential field site. I was struck by the sheer variety of sounds that the elephants made. Yes, they gave the well-known trumpets, but they also produced roars that carried for miles, rumbles so low-pitched that my human ears could barely detect them, and squeaks that sounded more like a dog’s chew toy than an elephant. Why do these animals have so many different calls? What do these calls mean? The truth is, no one knows. In fact, we know surprisingly little about how Asian elephants behave in the wild—even less than we know about their African cousins. I’ve made it my business to uncover some of the secrets of Asian elephant communication—and hopefully get my Ph.D. in the process! Continue reading →
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:
In September, Vivek Thuppil and Dr. Richard G. Coss from UC Davis published a paper in the journal Biology Letters regarding wild Asian elephant behavior towards pre-recorded tiger and leopard growls while attempting to crop raid. They found out that elephants silently retreat from tiger growls, but aggressively vocalize their presence when confronted with leopard recordings. According to previous research, tigers tend to prey on elephant calves while leopards are essentially harmless. This study is the first to investigate the inner-workings of elephant antipredator behavior at night.
Direction in which elephants emerge from the forest to trigger playback (courtesy of Vivek Thuppil)
It’s hard to believe that this is my last day in the field. The past month that I’ve spent at Uda Walawe seems to have gone by so quickly. Part of me is eager to return to the US, where I will finally be able to sort through all the information that I have collected here. But I do not want to leave the park and its elephants, and I resolve to savor this final day.