Monday, February 24, 2014

Lights, Camera, Conservation: How the Media Influences Our Perception of Endangered Species

By: Elise Gilchrist

            The media has an almost constant influence on our lives. Each day we are berated by countless ads, news headlines, and social media updates. Even living in a somewhat remote part of Thailand, I encounter more media that I can consciously handle.  With the media playing an ever-increasing role in our decision-making, what sort of effect does it have on the conservation of wildlife and our perspectives on endangered species?
            A study by Ross, Vreeman, and Lonsdorf (2011) investigated whether misrepresentations of chimpanzees in the media could result in detrimental attitudes about their conservation status. To test this hypothesis the authors conducted a survey of people’s responses to photographs of a chimpanzee in different conditions. The chimpanzee was featured on different backgrounds, including an artificial office setting as well as a more natural habitat. The chimps were also shown either wearing human clothing (eg. a t-shirt) or not, and standing next to a human or alone. The results were striking: the researchers found that the public was less likely to think chimpanzees are as endangered as other great apes when the chimpanzee was standing next to a human. This study was the first empirical investigation into how inaccurate media representations of endangered species may affect public perceptions. Researchers proposed that this effect might be caused by viewing images of animals next to humans. In other words, seeing a chimp next to a human might lead the viewer to believe that such direct associations are both common and safe, which is inconsistent with how the viewer thinks an interaction with a rare species would be.

Sample images provided to survey respondents. 
(Ross, SR, VM Vreeman and EV Lonsdorf (2011). Specific Image Characteristics Influence Attitudes about Chimpanzee Conservation and Use as Pets. PLoS ONE, 6(7)

            The study has implications across many media outlets. From animals portrayed in advertisements to images of scientists photographed with their study species, including famous conservationists like Jane Goodall, all of these images may be impacting the attitude of the general public toward conservation. A recent wildlife related Instagram scandal, involving famous musical artist Rihanna, got quite a bit of attention. Last September, Rihanna visited Thailand and posted a photo to Instagram of her holding an endangered primate called a slow loris. At numerous tourist destinations in Thailand, visitors can pay to take photos with endangered species like the slow loris, gibbons, and Asian elephants. Even though this photo led to the arrest of two men who were illegally selling endangered primates in the area, in the long-term this photo may do more harm than good. When fans see an influential pop star cuddling an endangered species it is reasonable to believe that it will have the same effect as portraying a chimpanzee alongside a human. A photo like Rihanna’s could easily convince someone that the slow loris cannot possibly be endangered.

Rihanna's Instagram photo of her holding a slow loris.

            From these stories, the media appears to be very bad for endangered species and threatened environments, but this may not be true in every case. In fact, I grew up watching Discovery channel and Animal Planet, which acted as portals to transport me into worlds beyond my backyard. I might never have considered moving to Thailand to try and protect Asian elephants had I not grown up watching nature documentaries that brought elephants into my living room. There are many people in this world that may never have opportunities to see endangered species in the wild, but they may have the means to watch scenes of pristine environments from the comforts of their own homes.
            The social influence of the media has never been greater due to how accessible technology makes it today. There are huge errors that can be made in the portrayal of endangered species on these outlets, but there is also great opportunity for garnering support for conservation. With strategic use of media, conservation groups can access support from people half way around the world from their project sites. As technology makes the world smaller and more accessible, it is important to be cognizant of the influence a single photo can make on the planet’s wildlife.

Ross, SR, VM Vreeman and EV Lonsdorf (2011). Specific Image Characteristics Influence Attitudes about Chimpanzee Conservation and Use as Pets. PLoS ONE, 6(7)

Monday, February 17, 2014

What's the Fuss About Tusks?

by Rebecca Shoer

Tusks are one of the most dignified and awe-inspiring natural ornaments in the animal kingdom.  No matter how cute or cuddly an elephant can look when goofing around, there is nothing as entrancing as an individual calmly sporting a full grown pair of bone-white tusks.  (An individual with tusks is called a "tusker" by the elephant community).  Of course, in Asian elephants, only the males bear tusks; in African elephants, both males and females have tusks.  Male elephants use their tusks for a wide range of activities, from combat and defense against other males to scraping nutritious bark off of trees.  Females are able to use their small tushes, which are essentially miniature tusks, to perform some of these tasks as well.  Since the females get along fine without toting around such unwieldy , albeit impressive, burdens, why bother evolving tusks at all?  Most likely, males developed longer and longer tusks over many generations due to a process called sexual selection.  This means that, for some reason or another, female Asian elephants prefer to mate with males that have long tusks.  Possessing long tusks may signal how healthy an elephant is or how good his genes are, as they take a lot of extra energy to grow and maintain.  Tusks are oversized, living teeth, and grow at a rate of about 15 centimeters per year.  If a male can survive in the wild while also carrying an impressive set of tusks, he is most likely very healthy as well as socially dominant.

Picture by Lisa Barrett

This sort of sexual selection is happening constantly in the natural world, as mating preference subtly changed over millennia.  However, outside forces can affect the evolution of species.  Sudden environmental changes can make a once-advantageous physical trait burdensome, or a flashy physical trait that indicates health may become attractive to predators.  For elephants, such an outside force has appeared: the ivory trade.
Ivory has long been prized for its decorative and aesthetic value.  It is easily carved, and has been used for statues, jewelry, and decoration for centuries.  However, the demand for ivory has recently been increasing at a dramatic and unsustainable level, and modern technology has made it far too easy to kill and extract ivory from elephants.  Automatic weapons and abject poverty make for a dangerous combination, and anti-poaching efforts have made barely a dent in the poaching rate.  If nothing is done to reduce the demand for ivory trinkets, elephants will swiftly become extinct in the wild.

Picture by Rebecca Shoer

However, in addition to human-led efforts to combat the poaching trade, evolution has begun playing a role in this battle.  The process through which animals with advantageous adaptations survive is called natural selection.  Those individuals that survive better and for longer are most likely to pass their genetic material down to their offspring.  The poaching trade, however, is an example of artificial selection.  It is not the elephants' natural environment, but the unnatural ivory trade, that is deciding which elephants pass down their genetic material to the next generations.  Put simply, if an elephant with spectacular tusks is killed before he has a chance to mate and have offspring, the genes for his tusks are lost.  Even if elephant females would prefer to mate with such a male, he is no longer available, and females must mate with the males that are still present.

Thus, humans have created an artificial advantage for males to not possess tusks.  As the number of tuskers decreases, poachers are "forced" to kill elephants that have relatively small tusks.  Thus, those males that simply never develop tusks, and do not possess the genes necessary to grow tusks, are suddenly at a mating advantage.  The number of their tusk-ed brethren is swiftly disappearing, and tuskless males are being provided with mating opportunities they would never get in a natural, non-poaching environment.
Just how prevalent are these tuskless males?  Professor Zhang Li of Beijing Normal University reports that, of the few hundred elephants left in China, the incidence of tuskless males has increased from 2 - 5 percent of the population to 5 - 10 percent.  A study done by Oxford University also reports that the size of tusks has reduced significantly since the advent of the modern ivory trade in the 19th century.  Although these numbers may not appear particularly large, such a percent change (perhaps from 5 to 10%) is unnaturally rapid when compared to an evolutionary timescale.  Elephants are adapting to the new environmental threats that humans have created.

Photo via Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Indian Institute of Science

However, evolution is a notoriously slow process, and when combined with the long generations of elephants, such an adaptation is most likely too little, too late to save elephants from the threat of poaching.  Elephants can live up to their mid sixties in the wild, and at the current rate of population decrease, elephants could be extinct in a single generation.  Though the rise of tuskless males is an interesting example of a species adapting to a new threat, it will not be enough to save wild elephants alone.  It is human behavior that must change, if this species is to exist for generations to come. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Spot the Difference: Elephant Edition

By Sophie Wasserman

As Rebecca discussed in a previous blog post (link), Asian and African elephants have been separate species for over 7.8 million years. To put that into perspective, scientists currently estimate humans and chimps shared their last common ancestor even more recently than that, about 5-7 million years ago. Though it’s easy to lump Asian and African elephants together under the umbrella of big, gray, and wrinkly, there are actually quite a few ways to tell the species apart.

 [Side note: For simplicity’s sake, the comparisons here are between the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) and the African savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana). There is a third species of elephant, the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) who is smaller than their savannah cousins, with rounder ears and thinner tusks, but not as much is documented about this elusive species.]

Location: When encountering wild elephants, the easiest way to tell the species apart is to remember where you are. The largest concentration of wild Asian elephants is India, but they can be found throughout the continental Southeast Asia, as well as Sri Lanka, Sumatra, and Borneo. African elephants are found throughout central Africa as well as smaller pockets of southern and eastern Africa.

Size: African elephants are bigger! Generally, Asian elephants range in height from about 2-3.5 m tall (6.5-11 ft) and weigh anywhere from 2,000 to 5,500 kg (4,500-12,000 lbs). African elephants, on the other hand, are the largest living land animal reaching 3-4 m (9-13 ft) at the shoulder and 4,000-6,300 kg (8,818-13,889 lbs) in weight.

Body shape: African elephants have a dip in their back while Asian elephants have a straight, or sometimes humped, spine. The highest point on an African elephant’s body is their shoulders, while the highest point on an Asian elephant’s body is their head. As a result, caretakers typically ride in the sway of the back of an African elephant, as opposed to the traditional mahout style of riding the neck of Asian elephants.

Asian elephants have a straight or arched back
African elephants have a dip in their spine
via Wikimedia Commons

Head: While African elephants have a broad, flat forehead, Asian elephants have a two-dome structure, with more prominent temporal ridges. Technically African elephants tend to have larger brains, due to their larger size, but it has yet to be shown that one species is smarter than the other.

Lips: Asian elephants have elongated bottom lips that taper to a point and droop in an almost comical fashion. The bottom lips of African elephants are shorter and rounder, almost completely hidden by their trunks.

Asian elephants have two domes and long lips

Ears: A general rule of thumb in the family Elephantidae: the closer to the equator, the bigger the ears. African elephants have much larger ears than Asian elephants, allowing them to dissipate more heat through the thinner skin on the surface of their ears. The now extinct wooly mammoth, who lived way up near the North Pole, had even smaller ears than modern Asian elephants. Another trick some people use to remember the difference? The ears of some African elephants loosely resembles the shape of the African continent.

African elephants have flat foreheads and larger ears
via Wikimedia Commons

Skin: African elephants also typically have more wrinkles in their skin, for the same reason their ears are larger: regulating body temperature. The grooves and folds trap moisture on their body, allowing the elephant to keep cooler for longer throughout the day. The skin of Asian, but not African elephants, will also change color. As Asian elephants age, they naturally lose some of the pigmentation in the skin around their ears, head and trunk, developing their very characteristic pink speckled appearance.

Asian elephants have smaller ears and show depigmentation

Tusks: Both male and female African elephants grow long tusks (the record is 10 ft 8 in!) but in Asian elephants, only the males do. Females either have short “fangs” called tushes, or nothing at all. This is part of the reason that poaching is much more of a problem in Africa than Asia, since twice the individuals produce ivory (there are many factors influencing poaching and the ivory trade; for more info see our previous blog post)

Asian elephant female with tushes

Trunk: African elephants have two finger-like extensions on the end of their trunk, similar to a thumb and forefinger. An African elephant can use these two fingers to pick up and manipulate an object as small as a single sunflower seed! Asian elephants on the other hand have only one finger on the top of their trunk. They have similar dexterity to that of African elephants, but typically grasp things like food by scooping them up and curling them into the crook of their trunk.

African elephants have two fingers on the end of their trunks
via Wikimedia Commons
Asian elephants only have one finger on their trunks
Photo credit: Rebecca Shoer

Toes: If you happen to find a footprint, check the toes! Asian elephants have 5 toenails on their front feet and 4 on their back feet, while African elephants only have 4 on the front and 3 on the back.

IUCN Status: Finally, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Asian elephants are considered “endangered,” meaning over the past 50 years or 3 generations, over 50% of the wild population has been lost, leaving them uncomfortably close to extinction. African elephants are still technically “vulnerable,” but if current poaching rates continue, this may not stay a difference between the species for much longer.

This list is not comprehensive (there are even subtle differences in the number of ribs each species has or the shape of their teeth) but it should give you head start on impressing your friends the next time you’re at the zoo or watching the latest nature documentary. And if you’re interested in ensuring that captivity and old film reels won’t be the only place you can see all species of elephants in the future, learn how you can get involved here:



African elephant in Pittsburgh Zoo by Jason Pratt via Wikimedia Commons
African elephant in South Africa by Trevor Ohlssen via Wikimedia Commons
Elephant - Colchester Zoo by Keven Law via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, February 3, 2014

Dominance in Elephants: Who is in Charge Here?

by Lisa Barrett

Imagine your great grandmother always picking which restaurants your sisters, aunts, and mother will go to while your teenage brother leaves the family and joins a group of other men…

How do elephants pick a leader? Who is next in the chain of command? This blog will answer your questions about dominance in elephants.

Like many animals, elephants form a hierarchy within their social structure, thereby reducing conflict over resources (such as food, water, and space).  In elephants, a matriarch (the oldest and wisest female) leads her bond group of related females to find food and water and to avoid predators. If the herd becomes too large for the available food or water supply, some of the females might split off from the herd and form their own groups, each headed by an older relative. In this way, we know that elephants live in fission-fusion societies. However, scientists are still investigating the complexities of elephant social structure. 

Matriarchs have great memories for where water is located.

Dominance in males is a little different than that in females, or cows. Males, or bulls, form bachelor herds when they reach sexual maturity. For example, while the dominant cow is the herd leader, the dominant bull is usually the individual that mates with the most females and beats out other males in contests of strength. Interestingly, dominant bulls who are in musth tend to remain in musth (and maintain a higher production of testosterone) longer than younger, less dominant bulls. Read more about musth here:

Male elephants may become aggressive when they go into musth.

Photo by: Lisa Barrett

In male elephants, there is a possibility of a takeover. Bulls who enter musth but are lower-ranking may challenge the dominant individual to gain a temporary access to females who are in estrus. In fact, being in musth gives males an advantage over non-musth males, because a chemical secretion signals to females that they are ready to mate. This process, in which different bulls enter musth and get access to females, allows for a fair system of which males get to mate and also makes the population genetically diverse. Interestingly, an alternative reproductive strategy has evolved in which males enter musth when dominant males are not in musth.

Fighting over access to females is risky. It usually involves two males clashing together their long, ivory tusks, rearing on top of one another, and perhaps sustaining injury (including breakage of tusks) or even death. The winner usually gains priority access to females—talk about making sacrifices in the name of love!

Two male African elephants fight with their tusks.

Photo by: Caitlin O'Connell and Timothy Rodwell

It is important for conservationists to remember that poaching wild elephants not only causes a traumatic instant for the families of the elephants being killed, but it also has devastating, long-term consequences. After all, if the eldest female (or male) elephant is no longer part of the herd, she cannot impart her knowledge to her family members, and so younger elephants have no leader from which to learn. This has already proven to be catastrophic for young male African elephants who, without an older male to guide them, became highly aggressive and attacked many humans and rhinoceroses. Therefore, the wisdom of dominant individuals is critical for the rest of the herd to learn how to behave and survive. 

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