Friday, October 26, 2012

Love thy granny

No offence to all you grannies out there, but why do they exist? Evolutionarily it doesn’t seem to make much sense for individuals to live for many years after they stop reproducing. In the brutal world of natural selection, what’s the point in living if it’s not to pass on your genes? But luckily for us grandchildren, grannies do exist. So why is this the case?

To answer this, the world of comparative psychology can come in very useful. We can look at the species where females experience the menopause and continue to live for a number of years and compare them to see how their environmental pressures may be similar. The list of animals that we know experience menopause is a short one:

  1. Humans
  2. Killer whales
  3. Pilot whales

The Grandmother Hypothesis in humans argues that older females ensure the survival of their genes through helping their grandchildren to survive. The more females there are to take care of a particular child, the more likely it is to survive. In addition, older females can contribute knowledge and skills to enhance group fitness. If the other members of the group are kin then this increases the fitness of the grandmother as her genes are more likely to be passed on down more generations. 

Although very little data exists on the post-reproductive life of pilot whales, a recent study by Emma Foster and colleagues has proposed a different theory for the existence of this phenomenon in killer whales. Female killer whales live for up to 90 years (males live to around 30 or 40) but stop reproducing in their 30s or 40s. Foster et al found that rather than increasing the survival of their grandchildren, as in humans, these older females increased the survival of their own offspring, specifically their adult sons. They found that in the year following an older female’s death, the sons showed a 14 fold increase in the likelihood of dying. This effect was not seen in daughters. The researchers suggest that because the sons mate outside of the family group, they focus their attention on their survival, rather than the survival of their grandchildren. 

The three species above have a number of things in common including long lives, stable social structures, strong family units and whales show matriarchal societies. Elephants also exhibit strong family units, matriarchal societies and are long lived. It is unclear as yet whether they actually experience the menopause but many females live for at least 10-15 years after their last calf is born. The evidence so far is more in line with the grandmother hypothesis in humans than the findings in killer whales. McComb and colleagues found that elephants derive significant benefits from the influence of older leaders in the family group; particularly in response to predatory threats but also very likely in the search for food and appropriate migration routes. Therefore longevity should also be selected for in elephants so that the whole family can benefit from this wealth of knowledge because older females can make better decisions in times of ecological uncertainty. 
A female looks out for the safety of her calf.

So whether it’s to directly benefit their own children or their grandchildren, granny’s help us to survive and provide us with specialized knowledge and skills that comes with a great deal of life experience. So next time your granny starts to give you advice, perhaps it would increase your evolutionary fitness to listen!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Thomas Nast, Elephants and the Republican Party.

If you were an alien sitting in a spaceship and the only signal you could pick up from us was the Thai newscast, you may well think that there are only two countries on Earth: Thailand and the United States of America. Here, all we hear about is Thai news and the upcoming presidential election in the land of Uncle Sam. 

Many things can be very surprising (to say the least) when it comes to US politics; one of them is definitively the party choices of animal emblems. On my left, the Democrats, represented by a donkey, a creature universally known for embodying stubbornness and stupidity. On my right, the Republicans, characterized by… an elephant. You may agree that for the party claiming to be the most patriotic and USA-centered of the two, choosing an animal that is not native from America or even the Western world is rather odd.  So why is the elephant the symbol of the Republican Party?

Surprisingly (or not..) the emblems of the parties used to be other animals: the proud and US-born bald eagle for the Republicans, and the rooster  for the Democrats. Donkeys and elephants only entered the political arena during the 19th century. 

The donkey made its debut in 1828, when Andrew Jackson was running for president. His opponent had labeled him a “jackass” [1] for using the slogan “Let the people rule”. Following the wise words of Tyrion Lannister – “wear it like an armor and it cannot be used against you”- 150 years before they were pronounced, Jackson adopted the insult and carried it with pride, arguing that the creature was brave and strong willed.  The image reappeared in 1837, with Jackson riding the animal, in an attempt to denounce his effort to influence the Party even after having left the White House. However, the donkey's moment’s of fame was yet to come: on January 15th 1870 was published a political cartoon depicting a “Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion”. The donkey symbolized a certain category of democrats called Copperhead Democrats. The drawing was published in the Harper’s weekly and created by an extremely influent political cartoonist named Thomas Nast. From this moment on, the donkey pursued its career as the –unofficial- emblem of the Democratic Party, being increasingly used in caricatures, speeches and even in person: in 2008 a very alive donkey called Mordecai was crown Democratic National Convention mascot. 

On to elephants now. Their first appearance can be traced back to 1864 in an ad in support of Lincoln’s race to the White House. However, the imagery didn’t stick until Thomas Nast published another satirical drawing in the Harper’s weekly in 1876. Called “Third Term Panic”, it depicted a donkey wearing a lion’s skin – the Copperhead Press – scaring away an elephant labeled “the Republican Vote”. The cartoon was highly successful, and Nast kept on using the symbol in following works. With time passing, the Republicans adopted the animal and made it the official symbol of their party. We are yet to see a live elephant being presented in the next Republican National Convention. 

It may be hard to understand why all it took for donkeys and elephants to become political superstars was a couple of cartoons published here and there.  It would be underestimating the political weight hold by Thomas Nast. An immigrant from Germany and a school drop out with spelling problems, Nast was also highly popular. He is responsible for popularizing the images of Santa Claus and Uncle Sam that we still use today.  His acerb drawings were so influential during presidential campaigns that his friend Mark Twain wrote to him: “Nast, you more than any other man have won a prodigious victory for Grant—I mean, rather, for Civilization and Progress.” With such a formidable manager, no wonder the elephant made it to the US.

[1] Yes, a jackass is a donkey. And also a penguin. Go figure. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Human-Elephant Conflict

The Asian elephant is a national symbol in many countries throughout Asia and has played an important role for thousands of years.  Historically, elephants were used in wars as warriors, they were used to transport goods and they were worshipped as Gods. Elephants are very unique as they are one of the few species that evoke so much attention and varied emotions from humans. Their large size, characteristic features, complex social behavior and high level of intelligence create much interest and endearment in people. However, their ability to cause huge amounts of damage and their sometimes aggressive behavior also create fear and intense animosity towards them.  This negative interactive between humans and elephants is termed `human-elephant conflict’ and is one of the most critical issues facing conservationists around the world today. This conflict has come to seriously threaten the survival of elephants in the wild.

Elephants need what we need: land, food and water. This is a fundamental problem as humans have become the elephant’s direct competitor for these resources. Where elephants roam, is where human population growth rate is accelerating. The more people there are on the planet, the more friction that is likely to occur between humans and elephants. Owing to the increasing demand for resources, humans have transformed forests, savannahs and other ecosystems into agricultural land and cities, leaving fewer resources for wildlife. Elephants have less and less habitat in which to live, leading them to wander into human settlements, and this is when the problems occur.

With increased human contact, elephants progressively raid crop fields and break down houses to get at stored crops. Elephants can cause huge amounts of damage to farmers’ crops, often eating and destroying whole fields. For example, an elephant eats around 200 kg (~440 lbs) of food per day, and a single elephant can destroy a hectare of crops in a very short time (1 hectare = 2 and half soccer fields or 40 tennis courts). Therefore, a small herd can quickly decimate a farmer's livelihood.  Cultivated food crops have been artificially selected and bred to increase their nutritional value, palatability and productivity. Therefore, these crops have become more attractive to herbivores like elephants than wild plants.  Often, the people who suffer these attacks are already economically and nutritionally vulnerable, and the loss of crops can have grave consequences for their income and food consumption. Chance encounters between elephants and people, as well as efforts of people to guard against elephants raiding, often result in the injury and death of humans. An intense animosity towards the elephants is thus created and the financial and human losses caused by elephants make local communities angry and intolerant towards them. This can result in the killing of elephants, thereby escalating human-elephant conflict and making elephant populations vulnerable to local extinction.

All over Asia, human-elephant conflict is a critical problem. In Sri Lanka the situation is very serious as every year approximately 100 elephants are killed by humans and 50 humans are killed by elephants. Without mitigating this conflict, the problem will escalate further.

A variety of traditional methods to try to reduce human-elephant conflict have been used over the past few centuries. However, following an increasing level of conflict, technological advances have resulted in the development of new methods to try to mitigate the problem. Traditional methods are easy to use, require low grade material and the costs of using them are relatively low. Examples of these techniques include chasing elephants away from fields by shouting, drum-beating, noise-making, throwing rocks and using fire, and guarding fields. More recently, people have used elephant barriers such as electrical fences, alarm systems, and trenches, as well as planting inedible crops. Novel techniques have also been created such as the use of chili and bee-hive fences to deter crop raiding elephants. Elephants do not like the smell of chili and if they come into contact with it, a skin irritation will occur. Farmers have used this knowledge and created chilli fences, where they paste chilli onto cloths and hang them up on string fences. This technique has proved to be effective in deterring elephants. Chilli bricks (sundried chilli mixed with cattle dung) are also used, as when they are burnt, they create a vapour which stops elephants from entering farms. In Kenya, honey bee fences are used. Researchers have found that elephants are actually scared of the sound of bees and so they have created fences with honey bee hives. Not only do these fences deter elephants from entering fields, but farmers are also able to make money from the honey. Other more complicated methods to reduce conflict include translocation, removing the problem animal, supplementary feeding, compensation and land use planning. All these methods are very expensive and vary in terms of degree of success.

Being intelligent and highly adaptable animals, elephants will learn to overcome many methods used for mitigation. For example, elephants have overcome trenches as they have learnt that filling up the trenches by pushing in dirt, enables them to walk across. There has been considerable variation in the success and failure of the different methods mentioned, and some methods that were initially successful may lose their effectiveness over time. Thus, there is no perfect deterrent that will work entirely on its own. Rather, it is has proved prudent to train and equip farmers with a tool box of various deterrents that, either combined or rotated, will have a greater effect than relying on any one method alone. No single method is likely to be long-term. Thus current methods have to be constantly updated and improved and ongoing research has to be conducted into new and innovative techniques.

If we continue to destroy elephant habitats at the current rate then, despite the novelty and success of some of these mitigation methods, there will be even higher levels of conflict, and we may eventually lose these beautiful creatures altogether. The loss of elephants would be one of the greatest tragedies that humans would have allowed to happen.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A day at Think Elephants International.

My name is Elsa and I’m the most recent addition to the TEI research team.

When I bragged about told my friends I would come to Thailand to do research cognition/conservation work on elephants, their first question was “but what would you do exactly?” [1]  

I tried to hide the fact I didn’t have much of a clue myself by speaking about “doing experiments with the elephants, you know, like the ones with chimpanzees, but also educating the kids about how much these animals are endangered, hmmm, you see?”

And so, they kept asking.

After a month and a half of being stationed in Golden Triangle, Thailand and working with three amazing people, I feel I can now give a better answer to this question. For any of you flirting with the idea of becoming a research assistant one day, here is a glimpse of how a “typical day” looks at Think Elephants International. If you ever thought this job would entail being a sort of Indiana-Jones-style scientist, fighting in the jungle by day and kissing slender creatures by night, stand still while I give you a dose of reality.

6.30am-7.10am: We wake up, sometimes with deep astonishment regarding one’s ability to sleep through a level 5 alarm clock ringtone. 

Sometime around 7.30am: We go to the research site, about 2-3km away. While Lydia has a motorbike, Rachel and I cycle. See “tropical rain” but also “breathtaking scenery” and “yay, exercise”.

8am: After having set up the apparatuses, we start testing our first elephant of the day. We generally test about 2 or 3 every morning, for about 30min each. Since they are also involved in tourist activities later in the morning, we have limited access to them. 

If you want to have an idea of how cognitive experiments with animals work, have a look here or here. Basically, researchers come up with a Big Question such as: do Eurasian Jays understand the physics behind water displacement? Big Questions are always fascinating, but very hard to test. What you need is a Testable Question, for example: would a Eurasian Jays choose stones rather than pieces of cork to make the water rise in a tube? Slightly less sexy, I know. The point though, is that we can record the answers to this question.  We then have an idea – after many painful statistical tests – of how well the animals did on this particular task, which hopefully give you some clues about how to answer the Big Question. 
It’s not that simple though. Two principles are really important in science: control tests - tests you run to be sure the results you obtain are not due to trivial biases - and repetition. 
Dont trust BBC documentaries: doing an experiment actually requires running (many) control tests (many times) on top of the actual test (that you repeat many times as well). If you have followed me right, you should have reached the conclusion that our work can be quite repetitive sometimes. Sometimes it is... and sometimes it is not, because of the elephants. There was the day Lanna did this incredibly cute thing, the day Bleum played for 5 minutes with one piece of our equipment before giving it back, and of course the day Poonlarb destroyed the apparatus. The list goes on. 

Around 10ish in the morning: We cycle back to our office in Golden Triangle, strategically located between the great iced coffee/tea shop and the 7/11. We then proceed to enter the data we collected and discuss the results of the day. We also make sure we are ready for the next day of research, scheduling elephants, creating new recording sheets etc…

12ish-1ish: LUNCHTIME! We cycle back to the research camp since we eat at the canteen with the hotel staff. Thai food everybody! Thai food cooked just for you!! We usually eat with the two Thai vets and the elephant coordinator which makes for very interesting discussions. There is always the Thai TV on which makes the midday news jingle the official anthem of the TEI team since it gets stuck in your head for the rest of the day. 

Afternoon: This is the beauty of the research assistant job: I cannot give you an outline of our afternoons because they change every single day. However, here are some of the things we may do:

-          - Reviewing literature: 

Knowing that I was writing this paragraph, a researcher suggested this definition: “ reading every paper ever written until your eyes fall out”...
Doing literature review means you are trying to find already published scientific papers relevant to your subject. Most of the time it’s very exciting: you learn many new things but there is always the risk that the next paper will be an obscure article published in the 60’s that’s testing exactly what you want to do.
Spotting a scientist doing literature review is easy; just follow the slightly red and puffy eyes. 

-         -  Designing a new study: 

Designing – creating - a study is the mental equivalent of a Quiddich Game. Ideas are flying around, counterarguments are punching you in the face, score is recorded, and everyone is pursuing the Golden Snitch of the Perfect Experiment. Sometimes there is a big silence, which means you either said something very clever (doubtful) or very dumb (here you go). If you leave the room remembering your name, you’re not doing it right. 

-        -  Building new apparatuses: 

One of my favorites; a team of researchers in the middle of a hardware store is a great thing to watch. We often need apparatuses for our experiments with the elephants and as you may guess, they don’t come readily available to use. We have to build them ourselves - with the help of kidnapped dads on holidays - hence, the hardware store. There is always a moment where we all end up waving our arms and fingers in the air, because, you see “if you bolt this part to this part, and then you pull this… Wait a minute; let’s say that my middle finger is the screw, so…” And I’m not even talking about discussing different measurement systems; inches, centimeters, feet, “roughly the size of my hand”, and of course :“about this big”… 

-         -  Working on education projects: 

As you may already know since you are currently on the TEI Teaching Kids page, we are strongly involved in educating the next generation about science and conservation. At the moment, we are designing curriculums for both Thai and US schools. We have to make sure we are giving the students the right information (see: literature review) but we also have to convey it in a child-friendly way. So not only do we have to think like elephants to create our experiments, but we have to put ourselves in the shoes of kids aged 8 to 15. Can you picture the feeling you get when you have to choose a birthday gift for your 12 year-old niece? This instant of sheer panic when you realize you don’t know anything about what she likes and how she thinks? When you still don’t want to go the easy way and buy her anything Twilight-related, but understand that the complete collection of Tolstoy’s novels may be aiming a bit too high? Then you have a pretty good idea of the balance we have to find when building our lessons. This is actually a great and exciting challenge. 

Evening: After dinner we may go for a drink or just go back to our rooms to enjoy a quiet night, reading, writing to friends or analyzing the physical principles behind the last episode of Dr. Who. 

It was just another day working for Think Elephants International!

[1] Actually, it was the second question, the first being: “can I come visit you?” This is how much they love Thailand me.

Monday, October 8, 2012

What do you mean by that? Elephant Communication Pt.2

Last time I considered the vast distances over which elephants communicate and the incredible means by which they achieve this. This time I want to think about more close range communication which is a different, but equally important, mode of maintaining an elaborate hierarchical society. 

Humans use an extensive array of facial expressions during face-to-face interactions which elephants obviously can’t do (although sometimes I like to imagine them rolling their eyes at us when we present them with yet another impossible control test!). But the lack of expressive facial muscles doesn’t mean they can’t convey as much emotion. Close range behaviors include vocalizations, body postures and trunk movements. So along with the infra-sonic rumbles, elephants produce a number of sounds audible to us. To name a few, these include roars, trumpets, and cries and only in Asian elephants; chirps and trunk bounces. Different vocalization-gesture combinations can mean different things depending on the context.   

Gestures can also be tactile between two elephants
For example, an erect tail, ears straight out and a roar indicate a very upset or angry elephant, whereas these same gestures in combination with a baby squeal suggest an excited elephant looking to play. 

This is not only interesting from the perspective of how elephants communicate and what they’re going on about when they do, but it raises points on the evolution of language. It is rare in the animal kingdom for communicative messages to be generalized to more than one context. Most animals just have one vocalization or gestures for one meaning. For example, in tandem running ants an experienced ant will show a novice ant where to find food. The inexperienced ant communicates to the other that he is ready to move onto the next part of the journey by tapping on the back its companion with its antennae. This ‘I’m ready’ message is only conveyed in one specific context and so it is unlikely any complex cognition is necessary. However when the same behavior has more than one meaning then the animal must consider its environment, audience and which combinations of behaviors are required to convey the desired message in a given situation. 

A lot of trunk behaviors and vocalizations are used during greetings
So communication may be yet another example of elephants overlapping with primates in their intelligence. As well as showing amazing feats of organization over long distances, elephants show an extensive and elaborate display of communication during face-to-face (or more importantly for elephants; body-to-body) interactions. From an evolutionary perspective, this further justifies why they are extremely interesting to study.  

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Elephants, the ecosystem’s engineers, gardeners and architects

Elephants are keystone species and are like the gardeners, engineers and architects of many ecosystems. Without elephants many other species would suffer as they are a vital link in the ecosystem and play a profound role.

A keystone species is a species that has a large affect on its environment relative to its abundance. It is a species which plays an important role in maintaining and balancing the structure of an ecological community and affecting many other organisms within this community. The loss of elephants from one particular site would mean that all the biological interactions and ecosystem processes in which they are involved, would also be lost.

Elephants as seed dispersers

Elephants disperse seeds by eating them, transporting them, and then spreading them through their dung. The overall body size of an elephant and their highly frugivorous diet make them particularly impressive seed dispersers. Out of the three species of elephants, African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) are the most effective dispersers of seeds and they disperse more intact seeds than any other African forest animal. They are also responsible for spreading seeds the longest distances. In one study, it was found that elephants dispersed seeds over 57km, whereas most animals will just spread seeds a few hundred meters away from the source. There are some plant species which depend entirely on elephants for their dispersal. For example, in Uganda, the seeds of a plant called ‘Balanites Wilson’ are completely dependent on savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) to consume and disperse their seeds, as no other animals perform this function. Elephants are able to rejuvenate some habitats due to them constantly transporting many different species of seeds and their ability to disperse seeds long distances.

The importance of elephant dung

After seeds are dispersed by elephants, their dung provides a suitable germination environment in which seeds can grow. It is very common to find fungi growing in elephant dung as it provides the ideal environment.

Elephant dung is extremely rich in minerals and is very fibrous. This is because only about 50% of what elephants eat is actually digested. Thus, elephant dung is extremely important in nutrient cycling, as dung provides rich nutrients to soils, acting as a great fertilizer.
Elephant dung also provides an important food source for other species. Many species will feed on elephant dung as it is a treasure cove of nutrients. These species include ground hornbills, banded mongooses, velvet monkeys, baboons and many insect species. For dung beetles, elephant dung is extremely important. The beetles roll balls of dung and bury them to store as a food supply for their larvae. This then provides the honey badgers with a rich food source as they will then dig up the dung beetle balls and feed off the plump grubs inside.

Elephants also provide an opportunity for other animals to feed on rich fruits. For example, in Africa, elephants can almost stand on tip toes to reach and tear the very high branches of protein rich acacia trees. This means that all the beanlike pods which rain down from these movements provide a feast for nearby wildlife, including warthogs, kudu and baboons.

Not only does dung provide food for other species, it also provides a suitable habitat for them, suggesting that a dung pile could be a small ecosystem in itself! For example, many invertebrates including beetles, ants, centipedes, millipedes, scorpions, crickets, spiders and termites are found living in dung. Not only are invertebrates found living in elephant dung but, recently in Sri Lanka, it was discovered that there were 3 species of frogs that also reside in dung. The exact reason why frogs live in dung is unknown, but it is thought that dung provides a good shelter and provides the frogs with amble opportunity to feed on its invertebrate neighbors.

Elephants as water providers

Elephants also provide water for other species. The desert elephants in Africa will travel miles in search of water and they will remember underground spots for water in which they will dig wells. This water is then opened up for other animals, enabling them to drink. In Kenya, people will actually follow elephants for many miles, as the elephants will lead them to water sources.

Elephants as habitat modifiers

Elephants are like engineers, as they alter and modify habitats by pushing over trees, stripping bark from trees and generally stomping around being elephants. For example, in Africa they transform woodlands into open savanna, creating grazing habitat for dozens of grassland species. When they move on, the savanna grows into scrubs for a host of browsing animals and then once more becomes woodland.

Elephants also open up dense woodlands by creating forest gaps. They open up dense woodland canopies, allowing a proliferation of species into the light gaps which are created. These light gaps help to diversify tropical forests. The upper canopy layers intercept so much light that little reaches the forest floor. Under-storey vegetation is therefore very sparse, reflected by low numbers of vertebrates found on the forest floor. Elephants create and expand these gaps and, in the process, open up a more productive and varied ground layer to a range of other vertebrates, including gorillas, forest hog, bush pig, bongo, buffalo and duiker.

Asian and African elephants are facing dramatic population declines because of habitat loss and fragmentation, human-elephant conflict and poaching, all human induced activities. Numbers of elephants worldwide have plummeted in the last century. If we do not do anything to help these beautiful creatures then in our lifetimes they will become extinct. Not only would this be a tragedy that humans allowed to occur, but the loss of elephants would have detrimental effects on the ecosystem.