Monday, December 30, 2013

Year in Review

New Years: a time for celebration, for families old and new, for looking back and looking forward.  It's almost impossible to believe that tomorrow will be the first day of 2014!  And so, as everyone else takes a moment to reflect, we will too.  Here's our 2013 in review, and here's to 2014 being even bigger and better!

               2013 was a prolific year for our group in terms of experiments, publications, and articles.  Our most exciting achievement was the publication of our visual pointing study in April: the culmination of our two-year education program with the East Side Middle School.  Look carefully at the list of coauthors: thirteen of those names belong to our middle school students!  Our work also appeared in The New York Times (Read it here). Just a few days ago National Geographic published a story describing our recent olfaction experiment (Read it here)!
               We also finished a number of experiments this year, with the help of our eight Earthwatch teams.  Some are in the process of being written up, and one will be published in February 2014 in the scientific journal Animal Behaviour.  At this moment we are designing and constructing new testing apparatuses, and we can't wait for field season to start again!

Photo by Elise Gilchrist

               2013 saw the kick-off and development of our Thai education program.  Our team was overjoyed to welcome our new Education leader, Tom Tem, whose experience teaching in Thai schools has been invaluable (Read her blog post here).  In May, two members of our team ran our first education program in Bangkok, which was comprised of 10 engaging lessons about animal behavior and research.  After reviewing the results of this work with professors from Mahidol University, we ran (and are currently running) our program in a local school here in the Golden Triangle.  Throughout our Earthwatch teams, we visited local schools to play elephant and conservation games, and to teach children about elephant biology.  In 2014 we will be expanding our education program in leaps and bounds: we will soon be teaching in 20 schools, and training new instructors in our program!

Dr. Cherry and Gae teaching elephant biology to our local students.
Photo by Elise Gilchrist

               We also ran a number of outreach programs this year.    In July we gave lectures and research demonstrations to a group of American high school students traveling throughout Thailand.  In August we presented research demonstrations and presentations on elephant biology and cognition to a group of staff members from the US House of Representatives.  Perhaps our most exciting outreach program was our Skype in the Classroom event in October, during which we ran a live vet check to classrooms in the US, New Zealand, and Australia!  Of course, from May to October we hosted our eight Earthwatch teams, and these  enthusiastic volunteers helped make all of our experiments during the field season possible.  In addition to all of this, we continue to run outreach and education programs with guests at the Anantara Resort and Spa and at the Four Seasons Tented Camp, spreading our message of scientific inquiry and conservation far and wide!

Our teen Earthwatch team from the LA Zoo.

               Finally, 2013 saw the transition of our founding group of Research Assistants to our newest crew.  I would be remiss to not mention the first Research Assistants of Think Elephants: Dan Brubaker, Rachel Dale, Elsa Loissel, and Lydia Tiller.  These RAs built our group into what it is today, from designing all of our outreach programs to constructing our research site.  After meticulously training the new RAs, they were finally comfortable handing over the reins and moving on to further education and employment.   After arriving in June, the current team of RAs officially took over July.  We can only hope that we have filled the impressive shoes left behind by our predecessors! 

Elsa Loissel, Lydia Tiller, and Dan Brubaker.  Photo by Elise Gilchrist

2013 has been a year of changes and transitions for TEI.  We have grown from our founding as a cognition lab to a conservation group dedicated to research and education.  We have many exciting things to look forward to in 2014: being featured on an episode of Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, multiple scientific publications, the expansion of our education program, and new cognition studies.  Thank you to our many fans and followers for your support as we continue to expand!  Without you, we could never achieve our goal of making a positive difference for the wild elephants in Thailand.  When we hear from our supporters on our Facebook page, when you pin a photo on Pinterest, when you sign up for our newsletter, and when you donate to our cause, we know that there are people in the world who are just as passionate and dedicated to protecting elephants as we are. 

We are very proud of our work this past year.  Our thanks also go out to the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, and Dr. Cherry and Gae, without whose help we would not be where we are today. 
 We now look forward to 2014 and beyond, to a time when the lives and happiness of elephants, and all wildlife, can be ensured for generations to come.  Consider donating to help us achieve our 2014 goals by clicking here

Here's to 2014!  And don't forget: Think Science, Think Education, Think Elephants!

Monday, December 23, 2013

An Elephant-Themed Field Trip

By: Elise Gilchrist

For the past few weeks, the team here in Thailand has been visiting a local public school to teach classes in Thai to a group of twenty students. Led by our field manager TomTem, the topics of these lessons range from animal behavior to elephant physiology to wildlife conservation (read TomTem’s blog post about education here: The students have been excited and receptive to each topic we have introduced, making them an especially enjoyable class to join. Though our pilot program in Bangkok was a success, our goal for this implementation of the curriculum was to utilize less presentation style PowerPoint based lessons and move toward more active games that then relate back to our objectives. This style has been well received by the bright minds at Ban Sob Ruak School.
The most exciting part about teaching at a school so close to our office comes with the elephant biology and physiology lesson. Previously, this lesson included a Skype session between the elephants in the camp and the children in Bangkok. However, since this classroom is only a few kilometers down the road from the camp, we were able to arrange a field trip! On December 4, all twenty students showed up excited and eager to meet the elephants!
      We were very lucky to receive a helping hand from the two elephant vets who work at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, Dr. Cherry and Gae. After some instructions and an active icebreaker game, the students met the superstar of the day, five-year-old Asian elephant Am. The students were awesome! They respected that Am might have been nervous around so many children and were quiet and well behaved around her but their smiles showed how excited they were to be so close to a young elephant.

Dr. Cherry and Gae lending their elephant expertise!

      Dr. Cherry and Gae then taught the students about various body parts of an elephant’s body as well as how to tell if an elephant looks healthy. Each student followed along with a “vet check worksheet,” filling out all the information they learned about young, healthy Am. Dr. Cherry demonstrated how to estimate the height and the weight of the elephant by measuring the chest girth and the foot circumference. The students even learned how to take the pulse of an elephant, by pressing on an artery located behind the ear and counting the heartbeats. It was quite a hands-on day in the “classroom!”

Students carefully filling out their vet check worksheets.

The students from our class here in Northern Thailand got a hands-on, live interactive lesson with an endangered species. It is innovative lessons like this one, which we believe will have the greatest impact on our students, and we plan to incorporate elements like the vet check into all of our classroom initiatives. We believe that our programs will better equip students to make decisions that take into account the impact they have on the environment. In order to ensure that our program is fulfilling these goals the TEI team has instituted an extensive system to survey and review our curriculum. Each time we pilot the program, the students complete before and after surveys to gauge the effectiveness of the mission. We also review feedback from faculty who both teach but also observe the program.
One of our major goals at Think Elephants is to be able to offer our conservation education program to every school in Thailand -- for free. We are working hard to create a comprehensive, engaging curriculum as well as train recent Thai graduates to teach these lessons. Our goal for the New Year is to have our program in twenty schools. To help us reach that goal consider making a donation to Think Elephants International.
            If you want to see for yourself how the lesson went then take a look at this video from the field trip!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Elephant See, Elephant Do: Evidence of Social Learning in Elephants

By Sophie Wasserman

In 2010, a group of researchers working with African elephants combined their almost 30 years of behavioral data to try to understand the phenomenon of “false estrous.” Females who weren’t in estrous (were not sexually receptive and able to conceive) were demonstrating all the typical signs of being in heat: holding their head and tail high, exaggerating their walk, and touching males more frequently. What the scientists found was that in each case of “false estrous,” the faker was in close proximity to a juvenile female entering estrous for the first time. Ruling out alternative explanations, the study postulated that these were teaching moments, that the na├»ve young females were being shown the correct behavior and learning from the older females’ demonstrations. 

Elephants are reared in tight knit family groups
via Wikimedia Commons
 Instances like these are called social learning, when an individual takes information gained by observing the behavior of others and applies it later to similar situations. In other words: monkey see, monkey do. Though it sounds simple, social learning is actually a complex cognitive process and is thought to indicate high intelligence in a species. 

Herd of Asian elephants
via Wikimedia Commons
            Typically, mammals are already born with about 90% of their adult brain weight, such that most of their behaviors are innate and instinctual. Humans, on the other hand, are only born with about 28% of our adult brains, so much of our knowledge and behavior has to be acquired during our childhood as our brain develops. Estimates for the natal brain weight of elephants range from 35-50%, indicating they too have a lot of learning to do as they grow up.
The most prevalent examples of social learning in elephants are found in young calves during their periods of high brain development. To learn proper foraging techniques, calves will examine, and sometimes “steal,” the food in their older relatives’ mouths, sampling the foods that are safe to eat to learn their taste and smell. Calves as young as 18 months have been shown to mimic the fly switching behavior of older adults, grasping and modifying a branch to use as a tool to repel insects after having seen their mothers do the same. Young males will follow full-grown bulls, observing their interactions with estrous females and smelling all of the same puddles of urine to refine their sense of smell.
Calf samples mother's snack
via Wikimedia Commons
An attempt to empirically demonstrate social learning in elephants produced mixed results. Researchers at the San Diego Zoo constructed a variety of puzzles that could be solved one of two ways, both of which resulted in a tasty treat for the elephant. In test conditions, each puzzle was first given to the matriarch of the herd, while another female was placed in an enclosure alongside. After the second female was given time to observe the matriarch, the matriarch was removed and the second female was allowed access to the toy. 
Bleum scratches herself with a stick as Am looks on

Contrary to predictions, the second elephant was just as likely to copy the puzzle solving strategy of the matriarch as to adopt the second unobserved strategy for solving the puzzle. However, the second elephant spent much more time examining and playing with the apparatus when she had witnessed the matriarch doing so, as compared to control conditions when the female was given access to the toy with no prior social exposure. In this way, the elephants are showing non-imitative social learning; the observer elephant is not directly learning a sequence of movements, but rather learning the value of a particular object, in this case, that the toy provides food.

The importance of social role models in elephant society is also demonstrated by the abnormal behaviors of elephants when they lack one. Wild elephants were played recorded elephant calls from a variety of individuals classified as non-threatening (those who were familiar or young and less dominant) or threatening (unfamiliar or older and more dominant). Herds in Amboseli National Park, which has remained relatively untouched by humans, were better able to recognize threatening calls, reacted with more listening and sniffing, and bunched together more frequently than the herd in Pilanesberg Park, which had been translocated as calves after the controlled culling of all the older elephants. The Pilanesberg elephants who were raised without role models did not show appropriate defensive measures when exposed to the more dominant calls, something the Amboseli elephants had passed down from older to younger generations
Mother and calf
via Wikimedia Commons
These findings have important ramifications for current human-elephant conflict. Though the practice of culling is dying out, the upswing in poaching has similar effects; by removing large, dominant individuals, poachers are destroying the fabric of elephant society, leaving behind calves to grow up with no guidance. With no social role models, young males especially can become out of control, exacerbating tensions between local human populations and their dwindling elephant neighbors. Further research into social learning, examining how and when elephants learn from each other, could shed some light on possible solutions to this troubling problem. 


Bates, L. A., Handford, R., Lee, P. C., Njiraini, N., Poole, J. H., Sayialel, K., ... & Byrne, R. W. (2010). Why do African elephants (Loxodonta africana) simulate oestrus? An analysis of longitudinal data. PloS one, 5(4), e10052.

Greco, B. J., Brown, T. K., Andrews, J. R., Swaisgood, R. R., & Caine, N. G. (2013). Social learning in captive African elephants (Loxodonta africana africana). Animal cognition, 1-11.

Shannon, G., Slotow, R., Durant, S. M., Sayialel, K. N., Poole, J., Moss, C., & McComb, K. (2013). Effects of social disruption in elephants persist decades after culling. Frontiers in zoology, 10(1), 62.


Elephant family by Siddharth Maheshwari via Wikimedia Commons

Herd of Asian elephants via Wikimedia Commons

I will follow you by Lip Kee via Wikimedia Commons

Mother and elephant calf at Lampang conservation center by Dpservis via Wikimedia Commons