Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Happy Songkran!

An Explanation of the Thai New Year Celebration
By: Elise Gilchrist

Songkran is a festival celebrating the traditional Thai New Year. It is held during the hottest time of the year-- right at the end of dry season in April. The celebration was officially set for April 13-15, but up in the typically sleepy Golden Triangle village, the festival ran for a full week!
            The most obvious aspect of the celebration is water throwing, which Thai people call “playing water.” During Songkran, Thailand engages in a nationwide multi-day water fight in the streets. No one is safe from the splashing, not even when you are trying to drive your motorbike to work. Kids set up on the main street with hoses and large buckets to throw water at each and every passersby. The battles reach an excited frenzy when pick up trucks drive by loaded with an impossible number of passengers in the bed, all equipped with giant water barrels and squirt guns to douse the crowd.

Even the elephants joined in to the fun!!!
Photo by Lisa Barrett
            The entire festival is meant to symbolize spiritual and emotional cleansing and to bring good luck for the coming year. More traditional practices include spring-cleaning and pouring scented water on statues of the Buddha, as well as giving offerings, or merits, to local temples. Originally the water throwing was a much more docile affair in which one would pay respect to his or her elders and family by gently drizzling water over their shoulders.  However, you won’t find such sedate water playing on the streets of Sob Ruak!
            Songkran is also a Buddhist holiday that encourages people to visit the temple. During this time of year you might see people carrying small piles of sand to the temple. This is meant to return the sand that they have carried away on the soles of their feet over the course of the year.
            Even though today’s version of Songkran is a bit livelier than the traditional celebration, it is still considered to be an important time to visit with friends and family. The Think Elephants team took the opportunity to partner up with some local children and partake in the biggest water fight any of us had ever seen! Songkran is definitely one of our favorite Thai holidays so far.

The Think Elephants RA's getting splashed in the face!
Photo Selfie by Lisa Barrett

Monday, April 21, 2014

Spots and Specks: Elephant Freckles

by Rebecca Shoer              

                  One of the most obvious differences between African and Asian elephants has something to do with their skin.  What color is an elephant?  You may be tempted to answer "grey," but after a quick perusal of the different species of elephants (savannah, forest, and Asian), you'll see a wide variation in colors.  Savannah elephants are the greyest of the three, and they typically remain stubbornly grey their entire lives.  Forest elephants are more of a brown tint, and some even trend towards a red-brown; however, they will stay solidly one color their entire lives.  Asian elephants, and the various sub-populations of Asian elephants, also range in color-- from grey to brown to red.  Still, a characteristic that all Asian elephants have in common is the way in which their skin color changes during their lifetimes.  Unlike humans, who go grey as they age, Asian elephants go pink!
Photo by Rebecca Shoer

               Once an Asian elephant becomes fully grown, around 15 to 20 years of age, she begins to develop pink freckles on the thin skin around her trunk, ears, and face.  Just like humans, some elephants go pink earlier than others, but by age 30 Asian elephants will have a full spread of lovely freckles.  But what are these beauty marks, exactly?  Do they resemble the freckles that some humans get, or are they more like the spots on a dog?  First, we need to understand just what freckles are, and why calling these elephant marks "freckles" is actually somewhat of a misnomer.
               Freckles, like those on our lovely RA Elise (pictured below), are concentrations of melanin that form in a person's skin.  Melanin is a natural skin pigment found in humans, variations in which result in the amazing range of skin colors seen across the world.  These freckles can be found anywhere on a person's body, but are commonly found on the face because sunlight triggers their formation.  After being out in the sun, people with freckles will develop freckle-lines along with tan-lines, where their skin was exposed to the sun.  Thus, though someone may have freckles year-round, the freckles will become more prominent in summer.  Finally, anyone can have freckles, though the number of freckles you have is related to how many freckles your parents have. 

Photo by Lisa Barrett

               Do animals have freckles? Animals obviously come in a wide range of colors and patterns--some of these colors are caused by differences in color pigments like melanin.  First, animals like dogs and cats can certainly develop freckles on their skin, though they are often hidden by fur.  Spots on fur, and not the skin, are not freckles (as the underlying skin may not be spotted).  Fur color can be caused by differences in pigments produced by the animal, but in other animal species, the colors are actually the result of what an animal feeds on!  Flamingoes, for example, eat a type of pink shrimp, the pigments of which then color the feathers of the flamingo.  In addition, other animals actually vary the color of their scales and feathers by manipulating the physical structure--the light reflects off of variations on the scales or feathers in such a way as to create many different colors.  In fact, the pigments of a peacock's feathers are actually brown, but the structure of the feathers results in an amazing range of blues and greens.

File:Peacock feathers closeup.jpg
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

               Clearly, there is a tremendous range in how animals create colors.  So what about these elephant "freckles?"  Turns out, elephants develop freckles through a process called depigmentation.  As you may have guessed, this means that elephants actually lose pigment over time, resulting in spots that are lighter than the surrounding skin.  Animals that completely lack skin pigment are albino, while those that lack most (but not all) of their skin pigmentation are leucistic.  So elephant freckles are in fact reverse-freckles: rather than being caused by a concentration of melanin, they are the caused by a reduction in melanin in select areas. 

               Although freckles are clearly passed along genetically, scientists don't know why Asian elephants, and not African elephants, have freckles.  Can elephants use these spots to distinguish between individuals like we do?  Could they indicate age, and thus seniority, in a herd?  Do more freckles make a mate more desirable?  It's unlikely, since TEI's research has shown that elephants don't attend to visual cues as much as olfactory cues (Plotnik et al., 2013, Plotnik et al., 2013). Freckling may simply have arisen in ancient Asian elephants after they had diverged from African elephants.  As having freckles does not seem to harm the elephants in any way, they were passed down through the generations until modern times.  There is some variation in the number of freckles elephants may have between individuals and between entire populations; some subpopulations of elephants, like those in India, have fewer freckles than others.  
               Regardless of the reason, these spots make these animals even more lovely, adding to their individuality and uniqueness! There is so much that we still don't know about elephants, and we must work to study and understand these spectacular individuals before they (and their freckles) vanish altogether.


Plotnik JM, Pokorny JJ, Keratimanochaya T, Webb C, Beronja HF, et al. (2013) Visual Cues Given by Humans Are Not Sufficient for Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus) to Find Hidden Food. PLoS ONE 8(4): e61174. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0061174

Plotnik, Joshua M., Shaw, Rachael C., Brubaker, Daniel L., Tiller, Lydia N., and Clayton, Nicola S. (2014) Thinking with their trunks: elephants use smell but not sound to locate food and exclude nonrewarding alternatives. Animal Behaviour. 88:91-98.


Monday, April 7, 2014

Odd One Out Part 2: More Quirky Questions

By Sophie Wasserman

Round Two of more interesting question from some creative thinkers! (see part one here: link)

"Do elephants really have the longest gestational period?"

Boonjan's baby body
One young student was quick to school us on extreme animal facts: though elephants have longest gestational period of any mammal (18-24 months), he pointed out that the record for longest of any animal actually goes to the frilled shark. Frilled sharks are ovoviviparous, or they lay eggs inside their bodies such that the embryos develop in a uterus, but get their nutrients from the yolk of the egg sac. The frill shark’s record is 3.5 years of pregnancy! Other runner-ups for the title include the black alpine salamander (2-3 years) and orcas (17 months). On the opposite end of the spectrum, some species of opossums give birth after only 12-14 days!

"Do elephants get their period?"

Thangmo won't become sexually mature until around 12-15
By Lisa Barrett

Elephants do not have a menstrual cycle and thus do not get their “period;" instead, their reproductive system is regulated by an estrous cycle. The cycle lasts about 15-17 weeks, so elephants go into “heat” (become sexually receptive) every 112 days, or only 3 times a year.  Usually this lasts for 1-3 days, during which the female will make particular vocalizations, assume different postures and ways of walking, and show increased interest in nearby bulls to signal her fertility. Just as in humans, her body is preparing her uterus for the possibility of pregnancy by creating a nutrient rich lining (called an endometrium) to support the potential embryo. If the elephant does not conceive during those few days she is receptive to breeding, rather than shedding the prepared lining as occurs in menstruation, her body reabsorbs and reorganizes the endometrium for later use.

"Are elephants the same as water buffalo?"

Asian water buffalo
Via Flickr Creative Commons
            This question came from one of our younger explorers, who was still surprised upon learning that elephant were closely related to sea cows and rock hyraxes. As you may expect, elephants are not the same as water buffalo, but they do have some traits in common. Both Asian elephants and the domestic Asian water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) are mammals, meaning they are warm blooded, hairy animals who nurse their young, as well as both being herbivores, eating only plants to survive. Elephants and water buffalo are also both ungulates: if you look at their bone structure, they are walking on the tips of their toes. Both species can be found throughout Southeast Asia, and, most importantly, both love playing in the mud to cool off.

"Do elephants cry?"

Moisture flowing from elephant eye
Via Flickr Creative Commons
Though there is some evidence that elephants mourn their dead (read more in our previous blog here), the idea that elephants cry because of overwhelming emotions or stress has never been substantiated. It is not uncommon, however, to see trails of moisture running from the eyes of an elephant and these “tear tracks” are often misinterpreted and mislabeled. Elephants lack tear ducts; any moisture generated to lubricate the eye or remove irritants like dust naturally spills over onto the face. When the moisture is excessive, flowing into the elephant’s mouth for example, this can indicate some sort of ulcer or infection in the eye, and should be examined by a veterinarian. Otherwise, this phenomenon is perfectly natural and doesn't indicate any emotional or physical problems.
With all of the recent research demonstrating how intellectually and emotionally complex elephants can be, it’s understandable that people are quick to attribute even more “human-like” qualities to them. This question serves as an excellent reminder that we need to be aware of our own biases and perspectives when studying animal behavior. Take chimpanzees for example: an open-mouthed, top-teeth baring smile, which to us means joy and affection, is actually called a “fear grimace” in chimps and is used when an animal is afraid or trying to intimidate others. We cannot assume that because a behavior looks similar to ours, such as elephants “crying” or chimps “smiling”, that it is prompted by the same motivations as our own actions. Just as a traveler tries to understand the customs of a foreign country, research into animal behavior and communication becomes essential if we want to promote positive interactions between humans and our non-verbal neighbors.


Kuhle, B. X. (2007). An evolutionary perspective on the origin and ontogeny of menopause. Maturitas, 57(4), 329-337.

McComb, K., Shannon, G., Sayialel, K. N., & Moss, C. (2014). Elephants can determine ethnicity, gender, and age from acoustic cues in human voices. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201321543.

Ward, E. J., Parsons, K., Holmes, E. E., Balcomb III, K. C., Ford, J. K., Altenburger, A., ... & Gunz, P. (2009). The role of menopause and reproductive senescence in a long-lived social mammal. Frontiers in zoology, 6(4).




Asian Elephant by Will Harford via Flickr Creative Commons
Asian Water Buffalo Bubalus bubalis by Bernard Dupont via Flickr Creative Commons

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How to Become Un-Endangered (Part 2 of 3)

by Lisa Barrett

Part two of my three-part series on how to become un-endangered will address how some species gain population revivals, while others do not make the cut. You may recall from part one of this series that humans not only put animals in danger of becoming extinct in the first place (read part one here), but we also decide which species “deserve” to be saved. With over 5,000 species listed as endangered (and likely more on which we do not have sufficient data), there will always be some that get overlooked. Conservationists need some way to efficiently prioritize and compare species approaching extinction. This sort of “conservation triage” is difficult to consider, but it is nonetheless important in directing funds and resources to conservation efforts.
Keep in mind that these types of decisions depend on a multitude of complex factors, some of which are location-specific (What is valuable in the economy? What does the local culture emphasize? What types of research does the government fund?). The World Wildife Fund, for example, prioritizes conservation of endangered species that are important for their ecosystem (e.g. keystone species) or for people (e.g. the animal has cultural significance) over species that may not have such an important role. In this blog I will cover just a few of the factors that go into this decision. So, what are some reasons for saving a particular species over another?
According to a poll by ARKive, the tiger is the world's favorite animal.

Part 2: Which Species Are "Worth" Saving?

The Ones We Like

Would you donate money to save a giant panda or a frog? An elephant or a spider? An orangutan or a crab? Most people would vote to aid a “cuter” animal. This type of taxonomic bias sometimes influences scientists’ decisions about which species to save. In part, it may be easier to fund research on a more popular species, such as a charismatic panda cub over a frog. No wonder the World Wildlife Fund chose a panda as its logo!

On the other hand, allocating funds to conserve an animal that is further up the food chain or an important keystone species with wide-reaching effects on the environment means protecting a larger habitat (which usually contains several smaller creatures; learn about umbrella species here). Focusing media attention on charismatic megafauna also makes it easier to get important conservation messages out to the public, which may be something as simple as “don’t litter” (learn about the media’s influence on conservation here). Bigger, popular creatures may be easier to relate to.

But do not fret! At least one organization specializes in drawing attention to the ugliest, endangered animals, such as the pig-nosed frog and the blobfish (Ugly Animal Preservation Society: http://uglyanimalsoc.com/).

The blobfish may be one of the world's ugliest animals. 

Here, you can take a survey about which species you would help save: http://www.geospatial-services.com/survey/conservation_survey.html

The Ones We Killed

Ironically, it is rare that we hear of conservation plans designed to save a species out of genuine concern that future generations may not have an opportunity to see the animals live in the wild. Although some people realize that we are destroying the environment, few turn that sense of guilt into taking meaningful steps to be more eco-friendly.

Interestingly, our guilt may trigger action previously only related to science-fiction. Today we are mourning the loss of some incredible species, such as the dodo bird. As if almost to show our intense regret about these extinctions, scientists are trying to bring back some species (de-extinction). For example, researchers may now have enough preserved blood and bone material to clone the woolly mammoth and the passenger pigeon. But while we may feel badly about our habitat-destroying behavior, this sentiment may not be enough to avoid the daily extinction of species.

What motivated humans to investigate cloning the woolly mammoth?
Photo by: Aaron Tam/Getty

The Most Economical

The harsh reality is that it is nearly impossible to convince donors to invest in the protection of a species simply for its continued existence or inherent worth. Conservation requires minds and strategies that are business savvy. You must convince a donor to support you while ensuring that they will receive something in return. Perhaps most influential is the argument that protecting a species should be an economical endeavor.

As some argue, not only must it be worth investing money in a conservation method because it will save X number of animals, but because it must also have economic benefits for the public. In other words, if the loss of the species will result in economic repercussions for the majority, the public will be more likely to support its rescue. As in most things, money always wins.

For example, raising salmon in the United States to the same high-profile status as wolves and grizzly bears (despite its relatively non-serious conservation status) was not accidental. An increasing western taste for salmon and a decline in salmon numbers may be a driving factor for the intense buzz around their conservation. Might one argue that the effect of losing salmon would be greater than the benefits of saving endangered turtles that are not so regularly enjoyed by the American palate? 

Some endangered species get more recognition than others. Do these sound familiar?
Photo by: kidsplanet.org

Some conservationists uphold that money could be better spent on less critically-endangered species that have a higher chance of actually surviving. Interestingly, there is a mathematical model that helps to determine the cost-effectiveness of saving a species and the likelihood that it can avoid extinction. Others add that conservationists should realize that some species cannot be saved no matter how much money is put toward them.
At Least We Tried

While none of these reasons are mutually exclusive, it is interesting to consider them as more and more species go extinct each day. You may be left wondering: at the end of the day, is it better to say, “At least we tried!” or to say, “We didn’t waste a single dollar!” on a conservation campaign for any endangered species? Perhaps some are more “worth it” than others.

This anti-poaching campaign reads: Protect the pandas of Africa- elephants. When the buying stops the killing can too. 
Image by: WildAid

In the final part of this blog series, we will look at Asian elephants as a case study for how conservation efforts have failed and succeeded in conserving a charismatic, yet endangered species. We will also make predictions about their outcome as a declining species, and how Think Elephants is working to prevent this foreboding future.