Recording elephants

Guest post by Michael Pardo, Cornell University

Monday, December 31, 2012

Batik

Batik and her calf

Last Monday, Sameera and I underwent a grueling six-hour bus ride (each way) to the capital city of Colombo.  Dr. Padmalal, UWERP’s collaborator for this project from the Open University of Sri Lanka, had managed to secure the approval of my research permit, and we went to pick up the document.  The long hours of sweltering heat devoid of any bathroom breaks and punctuated by the blaring of obnoxiously loud horns were worth it.  The permit allows me to record elephant vocalizations, which is, after all, why I came here.  There is only one problem:  the elephants have barely been vocalizing at all.  In fact, they seem to be doing precious little besides eating and walking.  I know that patience is key of course, but it is hard not to become a little discouraged as I wonder whether I will eventually be able to get enough sound recordings to complete my Ph.D. Continue reading

Mating pandemonium

Leakey mounts

Leakey, one of the largest old bulls to appear in the Samburu population, mates with Nicky of The Artists.

Male elephants continue to grow throughout their lives, getting bulkier and broader. Older males enjoy a greater competitive advantage and higher reproductive success. Many have a characteristic time of year when they are seeking mates, and as they get older they increasingly advertise their state with strong-smelling chemical signals in their urine and temporal secretions in a condition termed ‘musth’. Younger bulls, who don’t appear to be signaling consistently or at all, may also try their chances when a receptive female is available.  But they are prone to being chased off by the bigger, more dominant males.

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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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The Elephant’s Chirp

Given the previous post about what shall now infamously be known as the incident of 2011, I thought it would be nice to lighten things up by sharing our other experiences with males in musth. Moreover, this is about one of those moments every scientist lives for: discovery.

First of all what is ‘musth’?  Musth is a condition that male elephants undergo after their teens which is similar to rutting in sheep and deer, in which males spend most of their time trying to find reproductive females and battling other males for dominance.  Hormonally, it means they are pumped full of testosterone.  Typically a male has to be in very good body condition to enter musth, and the older he is the longer it can last – several months in some cases – and during that time he eats very little.  You know a male is in musth when he shows reddish wet patches on the sides of his temples (just behind the eyes), and dribbles urine.  Oh yes – and he also smells to high heaven (some of us happen to think it smells rather good, musky sweet and thick…but then again, some of us also like the smell of Durian).
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