Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Thank you, Earthwatch!

With the end of October comes the tapering off of rainy (read: muddy) season, the lowering of temperatures, and the conclusion of Earthwatch season, 2013. For the uninitiated, Earthwatch Institute is an organization that brings together conservation researchers with “citizen scientists:” individuals from all walks of life who donate funds, time and energy to research programs across the globe. As an Earthwatch site since 2012, Think Elephants International (TEI) uses the funding we receive from Earthwatch for our annual research budget. Earthwatch volunteers, eager to get their hands dirty,  then join our expedition for 10 days, usually in teams of 5-10 . We provide them with food, accommodation, extensive training, and a whole list of chores while the elephants provide the dirt with enthusiastic aplomb.

Earthwatch Team 5!
Photo Credit: Elise Gilchrist
Some Earthwatch sites desperately need the volunteers’ manpower, only requiring able bodies who are willing to collect specimens or count species in a transect. Our research site, on the other hand, benefits not from the quantity of volunteers, but the extraordinary quality that Earthwatchers inevitably seem to bring to the table. Not everyone has a background in research—or even science (in fact, most don’t)—but they have passion, enthusiasm, and a fresh perspective to contribute.

Up close and personal, taking Thangmo's temperature
Photo Credit: Lisa Barrett
During our Earthwatch program, the most frequent question we hear from our volunteers (besides, of course, “Which elephant is that?” and “When’s lunch?”) is “What else can I do?” We would love to have these volunteers running experiments from sunrise to sunset, but the elephants are not ours to monopolize (they are shared by the hotel), so our actual contact time with them is somewhat limited. While fewer hours spent collecting data leads to blessedly shorter time spent on data entry, it also means that some Earthwatchers feel as if they’re not useful to our program. And so, in honor of the men and women (and wonderful teenagers from the Los Angeles Zoo!) who got the chance to “Think Like an Elephant in Thailand,” I present to you the Top 10 Ways Earthwatch Makes TEI a Better Place:

     1. Research can be more efficient: We can run more elephants through our experiments each day without leaving ourselves exhausted and useless in the afternoon. More helping hands (once they’re properly trained) means more time to focus on specific tasks and accuracy in data-entry.
   2. Earthwatchers ask thought-provoking questions: They keep us on our toes and bring in a fresh perspective, framing a problem in way we had never considered.

Orientation day!
Photo Credit: Lisa Barrett
   3. Behavioral observations: Though much of our research focus doesn’t necessarily require more bodies, Earthwatchers are crucial when it comes to collecting behavioral observational data. Being able to watch the elephants interacting from multiple vantage points allows for greater accuracy, but it also requires the increased number of sharp eyes that Earthwatch volunteers provide.

Behavioral Observations
Photo Credit: Lisa Barrett
   4. Fresh pairs of eyes and ears: Earthwatchers bring in new viewpoints, come up with different phrasings and pairings, and can take a step back and view a larger picture when our team may be caught up in the monotonous daily details.
   5. Display a variety of talents: From picture book illustrators to accountants, graphic desginers to retired high school teachers, every Earthwatcher brings something different. We can pick their brains on potential fundraising strategies or curriculum design, or put them to work creating visual aids for classrooms or social media sites. TEI is a multi-faceted non-profit, and every volunteer finds their own way to contribute.
   6. Breaks up the monotony: As much as I love my team (you only have to read the previous blogs to get a sense of the talent I’m surrounded with), I see them every single day, inside of work and out. Earthwatchers are a vibrant group of new faces, brimming with adventures and advice to share, who are exciting even when the exhaustion inherent in coordinating people and animals starts to seep in.

The Fab Five of Team 6
Photo Credit: Elise Gilchrist
   7. Opportunities to work with underutilized elephants: As GTAEF is a foundation that rescues elephants from potentially bad situations, not all of the elephants up here in the Golden Triangle possess the training or temperament necessary for guest programs. Recently, Earthwatchers have been helping us work with Lakheng, a skittish 40 year old who is still learning how to use our equipment. She’s a total sweetheart who is very shy around people and our research site, so our volunteers have been integral in slowly accustoming her to new faces and places.
   8. They act as ambassadors upon their return: After an intense, ten day elephant research expedition, our Earthwatchers are ready to spread the message of conservation. They give TEI excellent lip service and recruit other people and organizations to our cause.

Running through a vet check with Dr. Cherry
Photo Credit

   9. Awesome food: We RAs cherish the ten days of Earthwatch for the chance to eat catered meals from the best cook in town. It’s fresh and delicious and, most importantly, not the same canteen food we’ve been consuming for the past four months.
   10. Inspiration: Our Earthwatch volunteers represent the portion of the population that isn’t apathetic. The field of animal conservation is not an optimistic one; each day we face the reality that the creatures we are privileged to call co-workers may very soon become extinct. But the fact that there exists a fraction of people who are willing to donate their time, resources, and passions to our cause renews our hope that we may one day be able to transform human-elephant conflict into human-elephant cohabitation.

Our Incredible Teen Team!
Photo Credit: Elise Gilchrist

And so, we thank them! We thank them for the support, the memories, the laughter, and the hope that for every Earthwatcher who passes through our program, there are thousands more like them out there who are willing to listen and ready to act. Welcome to the TEI Team of 2013, Earthwatchers. It was a fantastic year!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Don’t let Asian elephants be a part of our 6th mass extinction!

By: Elise Gilchrist

            Over the years I have met many a debate when I inevitably start spewing alarming facts and statistics about mankind’s impact on our world. This began when I became fascinated by extinction rates and how rapidly our planet was losing its species. The argument I always encountered from the opposition was that the Earth is resilient, loss of species is a natural occurrence, and ecosystems have adapted around the loss. “It’s just natural selection at work!” they would say.  Unfortunately that argument often rooted me upset and without rebuttal.
            Fueled by my intense interest in conservation and wildlife, I have since become better informed about the planet’s history of mass extinction. A mass extinction is defined as a relatively short geological time interval in which three-quarters or more of the Earth’s species went extinct. Since the beginning of life on Earth there have been five mass extinctions. The most famous of these is the most recent, occurring 65 million years ago that wiped out the last of the dinosaurs. Each one of these mass extinctions has been characterized by extremely widespread species loss and physical causes (i.e. giant meteors striking the planet).

An extinct wooly mammal, a species related to the elephants of today.

            So, how does this at all relate to my previous story of getting schooled in arguments about the environment? The answer lies in the theory that we are currently within or at the start of a sixth mass extinction!
 I will concede to my aforementioned opponents that extinction is natural and that the Earth has proven to be rather resilient. The background extinction rate, or the rate at which plants and animals have historically gone extinct, is estimated to be less than two species per million years (Barnosky et al. 2011). However, some current estimates put extinctions at two per hour. If I could go back in time, I would explain to my argumentative peers that previous extinctions occurred less frequently than they do today, and those in the past were also counteracted by speciation, the creation of new species. Unfortunately, this important balance has not been maintained in more recent history, and more species are going extinct than are forming.  
            But besides its accelerated rate, what makes this mass extinction different from the rest, besides the accelerated rate? The answer is human activity. All previous mass extinctions occurred from physical forces, whereas the one we are experiencing now is from a biotic cause. Diagnosis: Homo sapiens.
An Asian elephant, named Poonlarb, who lives here in the Golden Triangle of Thailand.

Even though the rates of extinction we are seeing today are alarming, only 1-2% of all species have gone extinct in recent times. This means that there is still a lot of biodiversity left to save if the global community is willing to make some changes. Think Elephants International (TEI) is currently working to save one of the species at the brink of extinction, the Asian elephant. By conducting research on this species in a controlled manner, the conservation community as a whole will be better equipped to mitigate the problems Asian elephants face today. TEI is also working to establish conservation education curriculums to better inform tomorrow’s government officials, community leaders, and consumers about how to best protect the biodiversity of the future. The question is, are you willing to help?

Barnosky, A. D. et al. (2011) Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived? Nature 471, 51-57.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Elephant Artifacts: Vestigial Temporal Glands

By Lisa Barrett

Elephants have two specialized areas on their face called temporal glands. They lie on either side of the head between the eye the ear. From Sophie’s previous blog entry, we know that male elephants go into a state of musth (triggered by the presence of females) during which they secrete a pungent liquid from this gland. It is no surprise, then, that both African and Asian male elephants possess these glands. But why do female elephants also possess these glands?

 A male elephant in musth secretes a pungent liquid from his temporal gland.

First, what is a temporal gland? It is a multi-lobed sac that secretes a viscous, pungent liquid, and it is indicated by a small hole on the face. Male elephants release temporal grand secretions in great quantities, especially when they are excited or under stress. This suggests that the gland is under autonomic control.

Left: The temporal gland structures (modified from Shoshani J., 1992) and microscopic structure (x 40). Right: The location of the opening of the temporal gland.

You may recall that elephants sweat only around their toenails, because they do not possess sweat glands like we do. Interestingly, temporal glands serve as modified apocrine sweat glands. They produce an oily secretion containing cholesterol, phenol, and cresol when the animal is excited or anxious.

A temporal gland can weigh up to 3 kg in males, and it usually weighs no more than 1 kg in females. The glands may secrete throughout the year, but they become especially active in bulls during mating season. Ancient tradition claimed that there were pearls in the elephant’s skull, because the gland’s oozing fluid sometimes appears like crystals. The secretion was also considered to be an antidote for poison, an aphrodisiac, an antiseptic, and a tonic for hair growth!

Elephants in the wild have been observed rubbing their cheeks on trees and other objects in the forest, which suggests a more specific communicative function for the temporal gland secretion. The secretions may serve to mark important locations, like waterholes, or they may contribute to the spacing of the male population.

Elephants smell each others’ temporal glands as part of chemical communication.

While it is relatively well-known that female African elephants produce secretions when they excitedly reunite with members of other herds, the significance of temporal gland secretions in female Asian elephants is still a mystery. In fact, the temporal glands in female Asian elephants are nonsecretory and vestigial. Could they still serve as important signals to conspecifics? Taken together with observations of elephants rubbing their cheeks on trees, females’ production of important chemical information could have broader communicative implications for Asian elephants.

Brown RE (1985) in Social Odours in Mammals, eds Brown RE , Macdonald DW (Oxford Univ Press, New York), Vol 1, pp 235–244.