Tuesday, October 21, 2014

From Idealistic to Idea-Driven: 16 Months and Still Learning

Hi everyone, this is Elise. I am one of the research assistants working for Think Elephants International. I have been living in Thailand for about 16 months now, and have started to reflect on how my attitudes and perceptions about science, conservation, and my future have changed over the past year and a half.
            I graduated from a small liberal arts college in the summer of 2013 and two weeks later hopped on a plane to Southeast Asia. I was excited and nervous and in many ways idealistic. College, at least the one I attended, was fantastic for a lot of reasons. It pushed me to think critically and pursue my interests, but it was also a bubble. A small, unrealistic cocoon where I could get outraged at deforestation, seethe about climate change, and in total safety and comfort, imagine how I would change the world.
            I will admit that I am still very idealistic and in some ways more passionate about conservation than when I left college, but I have also had a number of my ideas and views change over the past year and a half. I decided to write a short blog series about a number of these views and the experiences I have had that made me more realistic about my thoughts and more driven toward my goals.

This is me (Elise) and my friend Am.

            In this entry I am going to discuss a misperception that I had about the non-profit world and more specifically about donations. I will start with a quick anecdote about something that happened when I first arrived in Thailand. I was listening to Dr. Plotnik talk to a small group of people about elephants. He was discussing why he started the non-profit, Think Elephants International, and about the future of the species. I was listening and enjoying when all of a sudden I heard him say, “If we don’t make changes now, we likely won’t have any elephants left in the wild in 50 years.” I was shocked. Fifty years? I would still be alive then! When I had previously thought about the extinction of large, charismatic species like the elephant, I thought there was no way they were that close to being lost forever. I thought it would be hundreds or thousands of years before we got to that point, but no, as Dr. Plotnik explained Asian elephants only have around 15% of their original habitat left. I was truly shocked.
            Immediately I thought we have to get this information out there. If people just knew how dire the situation was they would be sure to support our efforts to save such an intelligent species. So I started working these facts and statistics into Facebook posts, presentations I was giving, as well as direct calls to actions to potential donors. What result did I get? Polite smiles, some questions, an occasional short-lived upset, but no one jumping out of their seats to help us. How could this be?
            After that I started noticing where donations went and how donors chose to use their charitable gifts. The biggest trend I saw in Thailand was tourists wanting to sponsor an elephant. There are a number of organizations in Thailand that are working to protect captive elephants and give them better lives and many of them have utilized the ‘adopt-an-elephant’ plan. That way someone can come to this country, interact with an elephant in real life, and pledge money to an individual they feel a personal connection with. This also gives them a very tangible product of what their gift went to. I am in no way condemning the foundations that run programs like this nor the kind people who have had their hearts melted by an elephant here. I did however become fascinated by this phenomenon and started researching.
            It turns out what I was witnessing is common across most non-profits. Instead of using shocking statistics that explain the scope of the problem, these organizations get much more traction through storytelling. We have probably all experienced this at some time or another, not necessarily in direct relation to a charitable cause. When you feel a personal connection to something, you are much more likely to act or speak out than when you have heard some statistics that are not directly relatable to your life. An example would be hearing statistics that funding for arts programs in public schools has decreased over a given amount of time. This may or may not make you upset but when you hear about a school that your child or a child you are close with attends is cutting music and art classes you get more upset and more likely to take action.
            It turns out part of what is at play here is a cognitive bias shared by most, called scope insensitivity. A study conducted back in 1992, asked participants how much they would pay to save birds from drowning in uncovered oil ponds. The subjects of the study were told that 2,000, 20,000, or 200,000 migrating birds were dying each year from the issue. The results were that subjects were willing to pay $80, $78, and $88 respectively, which quite obviously does not reflect the difference in scope between the three initial values. Why does this happen? Join me quickly for a thought experiment. First, try to imagine one bird, struggling in an oil spill, with its flight feathers dripping and its whole body fighting to stay alive. Now try to imagine 2,000 birds doing the same thing. Now try 200,000 birds. It’s not easy, if possible at all to conjure up that image, whereas our brains had a much easier time thinking of that one individual and likely feeling emotional about the one sick bird as opposed to the 200,000 dying ones.
            A lot of non-profits are tapping in to this aspect of human behavior. Instead of using statistics and facts, charities are looking for stories about individuals they are affecting. Telling the story of a young child whose life was changed by a generous donation is heartwarming, cold statistics are not. So how does Think Elephants International put this to use? It is something we are working on but because of the type of work we do here, we have struggled to find the right narrative. We are working to save the species as a whole by learning more about Asian elephant intelligence and by educating students about the importance of protecting wildlife. These are large-scale goals so finding the smaller stories within them can be difficult. I would love your feedback about what stories you think we should tell. What do you respond to from our website or Facebook page or blog? Do you have any ideas for the team here in Thailand? We would love to hear from you either in the comments to this blog or by sending an email to info@thinkelephants.org.


Desvouges, William F.; Johnson, Reed; Dunford, Richard; Boyle, Kevin; Hudson, Sarah; Wilson, K. Nicole (1992). "Measuring Non-Use Damages Using Contingent Valuation: An Experimental Evaluation of Accuracy". Research Triangle Institute Monograph 92–1.


Thursday, October 9, 2014

Social Networking for Animals?

When we hear the words “social network,” most of us think about the worlds of social media on Twitter and Facebook. An ecologist or animal behaviorist may think of a different type of social network, a model of the social connections between animals, not utilizing the internet. A social network is most simply a set of social units and the relationships between them, represented by nodes and edges respectively1. A human social network could be developed where an individual is the social unit or node and the ties between each individual or edges are determined by their association. This association between people could be defined by a number of different connections, maybe phone calls between them or just being friends on Facebook.
An example of a human social network using Facebook connections. http://www.touchgraph.com/facebook 
Let’s imagine trying to develop a social network that exists in a typical high school. As a researcher, you would observe teenagers interacting at different times of day, maybe before school begins and during lunch. The network could be determined by interactions and associations. If you were looking at interactions, you could count every high five or hug between individuals. Associations could be determined by people sitting together at lunch. Mapping these relationships would give a picture of the high school students’ cliques and which individuals bridged between these groups.  Other factors could also be analyzed to see what determined these groupings. Were the teenagers associating because they had similar hobbies? Would the stereotypical cliques emerge, with the jocks, band kids, and skaters only associating together? Or would the associations be more strongly related by race or social class? This snapshot of a young population of our society brings insight into the structure of human society.
The study of this type of network is termed Social Network Analysis (SNA). Scientists create graphical representations of the network called sociograms to visualize the connections in a social group and determine its structure. Then mathematical modeling can be used to detect patterns within the networks.2 These patterns can be compared with other characteristics of the individuals to see which factors determine the social connections. For example, are the social units associating together because they are genetically related or they are a similar age? The network sociograms can convey a lot of information that would be difficult to graph in other ways, such as the strength and directionality of the social connections. The strength of the whole social network is determined by the number of connections between individuals relative to the total possible connections. A network can also be analyzed to determine the importance of an individual in the group through the number of connections they have to others.1 By determining these key players in a network, predictions can be made about the social group. For example, social learning can be predicted using this type of analysis. If an individual who is very central to the network learns a task, it may be predicted that the others in the group will learn that task faster than if an individual on the outside of the group learns the task. Disease transmission can also be predicted by looking at social networks.  
A human social network within a company, demonstrating that Alan is a central individual.
Analysis of the networks of other species can give us insight into how their societies are structured differently than ours and the factors affecting relationships. These factors may be genetic relatedness, age, or endocrine levels of the individuals. The relationships could also be controlled by outside factors, such as season or availability of food in the environment. The insights into social dynamics of an animal population gained from these analyses are useful for wildlife management strategies and conservation. It is important to maintain the strength of the social structure and protect the key individuals crucial for the cohesion of a network. 4 Monitoring the social network of a population can determine any effects human activities are having on the well-being of the population.
Social network analysis has helped to clarify the social organization of both African and Asian elephants and allowed for comparison between the two species. The analysis of African elephant society has demonstrated that their society is made up of hierarchical tiers. The most basic level of association is between the mother and calf, who sometimes group with other closely related females, and then sometimes with multiple groups of families, and finally with multiple herds. The elephants grouped into these different tiers sometimes depending on ecological factors such as food availability or season.7 In a study of Asian elephants inhabiting a national park in Sri Lanka, social network analysis helped determine that most ties between individuals are weaker than in African elephants. The Asian elephant network is less interconnected and therefore they cannot have the same hierarchical structure as African elephants.6 Another study demonstrated that there was greater association between Asian elephants in the dry season, which is very different from African elephants who associate more in the wet season. It is possible that Asian elephants aggregate in the dry season in order to access and protect scarce resources. 5
Social networks of Asian (E. maximus) and African (L. africana) elephants. The strength of the African elephant network is demonstrated by the dense connections between individuals and greater fragmentation when weak ties are removed. de Silva & Wittemyer,2012 
Using a network approach, the social interactions of male elephants have been further investigated. It was previously thought that male elephants had very weak social ties, but a recent study has shown that their sociality is affected by sexual state. When looking at a network of only African males that were not sexually active, the network appears to be much denser and the associations between males stronger. SNA allows for these patterns to emerge and the ability to visualize these male elephant relationships. It was also shown that sexually inactive males were associating with other males based on age. 8
Social network analysis is an exciting tool for the investigation of the social structure of many different populations, including our own. Further research on elephant societies in the wild may show that there are more factors influencing their society than we currently understand. It will also be an important tool as we continue to investigate the impact of poaching on elephant societies. Think about your own social network and the factors influencing the people who you are connected with. Although our societies are very different, we form relationships in some of the same ways. Maybe our social groups don't change based on season, but humans do tend to associate with relatives.

Two African elephant families hanging out in a river together.

1 Wasserman S. & Faust K. 1994. Social network analysis: methods and applications. In: Granovetter M, editor. Structural analysis in the social sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 825.

2 Freeman LC. 2004. The development of social network analysis. Vancouver, BC: Empirical Press.

3 Brent L., Lehmann J., & Ramos-Fernandez G. 2011. Social network analysis in the study of non-human primates: a historical perspective. American Journal of Primatology. 73, 720-730.

4 Lusseau D, NewmanMEJ. 2004. Identifying the role that animals play in their social networks. Biology Letters. 271:S477–S481.

5 de Silva S., Ranjeewa A., & Kryazhimskiy S. 2011. The dynamics of social networks among female Asian elephants. BMC Ecology. 11:17.

6 de Silva S. & Wittemyer G. 2012. A comparison of social organization  in Asian elephants and African Savannah elephants. International Journal of Primatology. 

7 Wittemyer G., Douglas-Hamilton I., & Getz W. M. 2005. The socioecology of elephants: analysis of the processes creating multitiered social structures. Animal Behaviour. 69, 1357-1371.

8 Goldenberg S., de Silva S., Rasmussen H., Douglas-Hamilton I., & Wittemyer G. 2014. Controlling for behavioural state reveals social dynamics among male African elephants, Loxodonta africana. Animal Behaviour. 95, 111-119.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Chemical Communication: The Language of Love

By: Dan Dixon

This is a story about smelling your friends.

Friday night is on the horizon. You can’t see it, hear it, or touch it, but you can smell it. You’ve had a hectic week burdened with traveling to and fro, paired with the daily stresses of being a nomad. It’s finally time to relax and share some quality communication with individuals of your own species. You’re mid-stride, maybe ten minutes from the local watering hole, when you begin picking up some low frequency vibrations. It sounds like a fiesta of sorts and the DJ is playing your favorite tunes. You naturally get excited and return a signal or two back towards the party to let them know you’re on the way. Fortunate for some, and unfortunate for others, you’ve been experiencing a constant, concentrated urine drip, similar to a leaky faucet, dispersing odorous compounds every which way. Even more flattering, a dense liquid is oozing from your face. The ooze source is an almost unnoticeable crater above the eye, coming from an area known as the temporal gland, symmetrically located on both sides. For you, it’s just that time of the year when your urine, dung, breath and parts of your face constantly emit chemical signals for a period of time ranging from a few weeks up to a few months. Chances are, and luckily for you, some females at the party will find you irresistible for reasons they can’t explain. And more often than not, they already got the cue that you’re in town for the night. This sounds like a typical Friday evening spent searching for potential mates, does it not? Did I mention you are a teenage male elephant in musth?

In this segment, I want to use this casual scenario as a model to introduce the ways in which Asian elephants rely on the signaling and reception of chemicals in reproductive settings. Take a step away from your computer screen and delve into the wrinkly skin of the teenage male so we can address some of the smells you’ve been emitting, and also those you’ve been receiving from potential companions.

Science has been working to empirically support the claims that Asian elephants depend on their ability to recognize, distinguish, process, and react to different chemicals signals. We’ve learned that the main uses of chemical signals have roots in reproduction and societal integration. To communicate from male-to-female, female-to-male, male-to-male, and female-to-female, both directly and indirectly, pheromones are emitted to reach the senses of another individual. Coming from the Greek words pherein (to carry) and hormone (to stimulate), pheromones are an extremely efficient way to communicate without the potential ambiguity seen in vocal, or body communication.

Not only seen in the elephant, pheromones are utilized throughout the animal kingdom. First appearing in 1959, bombykol was discovered in silkworms to act as a female-to-male attractive chemosignal. Since then, scientists have been discovering several different compounds used for different messages. It’s also not only used for sexual memos. Did you ever wonder how ants travel in synchrony to and from their home? Hint: They are not watching the feet of the guy in front. With scent producing glands all over their body, ants emit from 10 to 20 chemical odors with high hopes of reaching their fellow comrades. Their method of chemical detection is just as important to receive and process that information. That’s where antennae play a role. They are super sensitive and can distinguish direction from the concentration of chemicals in the air. The processing of these signals is almost instant, thus providing an extremely efficient method of communication. When thinking about writing this piece, I naively assumed that chemical signaling was a strictly terrestrial feat only utilized by land animals. Can marine wildlife also utilize the chemical sense to talk the love talk?

According to a paper on chemical signals in the marine environment, a variety of organisms rely on smells emitted from others to make conversation. For example, lobster urine carries important information for courtship, dominance, and individual recognition. Lobsters have been shown to locate odor sources by controlling three different water currents up to one meter in front of their crunchy self, then detecting minuscule variations of scents. The authors also discuss various methods used by fishes, marine mammals, mollusks and crustaceans. It is quite amazing how widely adapted these animals can be at communicating in their own distinct way. In elephants, we’ve observed their ability to use olfactory cues (smells), as their primary sense. So it would be totally reasonable for elephants to have adapted some sort of chemical language as well.

Let’s return to the party scenario. Remember, you’re a young, bull elephant secreting chemicals through liquid that vaporizes and disseminates into the air. As a male, you are sending signals to both males and females of your current status. Without saying a word, your signals are saying to the females, “I am ready to court you” and to the males, “Watch out, avoid me.” Your urine and dung are being dispersed and absorbed by the earth and plants. According to some elephant pee experts, in multiple increments your urine volume can reach up to 160 liters throughout the day. These secretions are being left behind for elephants traveling behind you, but also for individuals in the proximate area.

Just like the ant and the antennae, the receiving conspecific needs a way to detect and process the chemical signal. The signal passes through the vomeronasal organ (VNO) at the roof of the elephant mouth. By carrying the signal from its origin and placing the tip of their trunk to the VNO, the elephant can process the levels of different chemicals. This behavior, coined the flehmen response, can be used to measure the level of interest an elephant may have for that individual. The VNO then sends signals to the olfactory bulb and ultimately to the neocortex (for processing and motor purposes) and to the limbic system (for memory purposes). For more on the flehmen response and VNO organ, scope previous research assistant Dan’s blog here bit.ly/1E6EFcn.

So the party is going smoothly. You think you’ve found your mate, but as soon as you make your move, another mature, much-more-macho bull elephant enters the scene. Since you’re still young, your period of musth, maybe around a month, is much shorter than his, reaching up to three months. He’s been perfecting his style for years, if not decades. Your urine and secretions have a sweeter honey-like smell, but are still odorous and full of metabolites representing your heightened arousal and testosterone levels. However, his scent is obnoxious. It is dense and it reeks; he is producing 60x more testosterone than normal. Time and genetics are also on his side. Researchers have shown that older elephants, like him have a more attractive scent. His behavior is also more erratic and dangerous. That odor contains a much higher degree of a pheromone called frontalin; it’s attracting the most readily available females and keeping other males out of the way. As he approaches, you also retreat, knowing your power is no match. Unfortunately, your luck strikes out for the night and you hit the road riding solo once again.

I’m sorry to tell a story without a happy ending, but it’s realistic. The young male will prevail as future encounters change for the better. He is learning. It’s the same type of learning that the other large bull went through, completely necessary for social, complex creatures like elephants.  This is just a quick tale of how chemical signals are used though. I would have to write a seven volume novel series, and then adapt it into a screenplay to tell the full story of elephants and chemical communication. The vast spectrum of the chemical language still holds many questions, so future research will hopefully address some of those inquiries to really learn how these animals are connecting.

Below is a photo of Pepsi (currently in musth) with Buathong speaking their language.


Atema J. Chemical signals in the marine environment: dispersal, detection, and temporal signal      analysis. PNAS. 1995 (1) 62-66

Daniel JC. 1998. The Asian elephant: a natural history. Dehra Dun, India: Natraj Publishers.        306p.

Rasmussen LEL. 1998 Chemical communication: an integral part of functional Asian elephant       (Elephas maximus) society. Ecoscience 5:410-26.

Rasmussen LEL, Schulte BA. 1998. Chemical signals in the reproduction of Asian and African     elephants. Anim Reprod Sci 53:19-34.