Tag Archives: animal behavior

How to make the elephant want to leave the room

ResearchBlogging.orgWhen you pack over a billion people into a relatively small subcontinent containing several globally important biodiversity hotspots, and many species of large, fierce, charismatic megafauna, the challenges of conserving all that biodiversity while meeting human needs are not simple. You find that solutions invented in other places, in simpler contexts, seldom work. Some simple seeming problems require complex solutions while other seemingly intractable problems may be solved in surprisingly simple ways. There are also, of course, other problems, larger political / social / economic ones, like managing global warming, that we are afraid to address even in the face of disaster, and find ourselves tiptoeing around as long as possible, the proverbial elephant in the room.


Landscape that dwarfs elephants“, image by Arati Rao

Sometimes though, the elephant in your metaphorical living room may be an actual real live Asian Elephant in the middle of a human landscape. Quite possibly rampaging through some farmer’s crop, high on musth gland secretions. Or camped out in the middle of that montane estate from which you get your morning cup of tea, its dark bulk rising “like a large boulder above the low tea bushes” as my friend Janaki Lenin described in an astonishing article in The Hindu a couple of days ago.

A crop-raiding elephant is most likely a solitary male, though, possibly in musth, but out in the open playing a high risk strategy to try and maximize his gain in that ancient evolutionary game of reproductive fitness. The risk of running around in the middle of human habitation is obvious, for humans are the most dangerous animals on the planet, liable to kill you for a variety of reasons. And elephants, with their social smarts, and their long memories, are particularly qualified to learn about these risks. Indeed, the females, in social groups with their sisters and their young ones, do tend to stay away from humans as much as possible.

Why then do the males stray into those crop fields, and tea estates, the occasional country distillery, and even suburbia, taking on these enormous risks? Because their reproductive success depends on access to females, for which they must compete with other males, and that contest usually goes to the biggest male in the ‘hood. So any young male elephant must try to become as big as possible to ensure his evolutionary fitness, for such are the pressures of sexual selection in this species. And for that, the males must eat. A lot.

When your natural habitat is fragmented, though, converted by humans for other purposes, and your traditional migratory pathways are cut off, where can a young male find enough food to grow big and strong? Not within the small “natural” areas humans have supposedly “protected” for them, especially when such areas are small and shrinking.

But hello, what have the humans done with the former elephant habitat? Why, they’ve converted them, from productive natural diverse forests and grasslands into even more productive monoculture grasslands (and other crops)! And the ‘grass’ is even sweeter and richer in energy ever since the clever humans figured out agriculture! What’s more, the humans then also harvest the best parts of the plants and pile it up in convenient storehouses in their villages and towns. So, if you are willing to take the risk, maybe even use your bulk to some advantage against the puny humans—as long as they don’t come back at you with guns and ammo—you have a potentially very high payoff from feeding in those crop fields and village barns.

This high-risk strategy can work—has worked—especially in the south Asian context because the human societies there have developed religious cultural traditions of worshipping elephants (and other animals) and generally leaving them alone, even if they are raiding precious crops. Some of these odd humans have been willing to make that offering to the elephant gods, and accept even the occasional human sacrifice as a routine cost of farming in elephant country. As the human population has grown, however, their patience with wildlife has also worn thin, and so we have one of the biggest challenges for wildlife conservationists: managing this recurring human-elephant conflict.

Given the cultural status of elephants, and their conservation status as an endangered species, managing these “rogue” crop-raiding elephants is a huge headache. One strategy commonly used is to simply capture the offending elephants, one at a time, and relocate them to where we think is suitable habitat for them. A new paper in PLoS One this week presents the first comprehensive study of this strategy to reduce human elephant conflict (HEC). Fernando and colleagues tracked a dozen such relocated elephants (some relocated more than once) using GPS-fitted radio-collars that could be monitored via satellite. What they found is not encouraging: 

All translocated elephants were released into national parks. Two were killed within the parks where they were released, while all the others left those parks. Translocated elephants showed variable responses: “homers” returned to the capture site, “wanderers” ranged widely, and “settlers” established home ranges in new areas soon after release. Translocation caused wider propagation and intensification of HEC, and increased elephant mortality. We conclude that translocation defeats both HEC mitigation and elephant conservation goals.

So basically, you create more problems than you solve by trying to relocate elephants. First, it is not easy to move the elephants far enough away (at least in Sri Lanka where the study was conducted) to keep them from trying to get back to their original home range. Second, you don’t simply solve the conflict, you merely displace it to another location, often escalating it to the point that the elephant ends up getting killed. It seems that more often than not, the poor elephants will, ultimately, always be at the losing end of that game. So the authors recommend abandoning the relocation strategy, and conclude that:

In the long term, attention needs to be shifted towards preventing the genesis of ‘problem-elephants’. Such a strategy requires eliminating elephant management and crop protection methods that promote elephant aggression and increase HEC, and implementing land-use plans that minimize crop raiding.

Meanwhile, Janaki, in her article published on the same day as the PLoS One paper, raises a different, intriguing possibility, based on another aspect of human relationships with elephants: domestication. While humans have been taming the landscape and transforming elephant habitats into farms for our own use, a handful of communities in India have also mastered the art of domesticating the elephants and using them for a variety of purposes, mostly as labor, but also as cultural and religious icons.

Janaki’s tale revolves around one particular attempt to use domestic elephant males (kumkis) to physically drive a “rogue” elephant out of a tea estate, and back into more suitable habitat. This elephant drive though, turned out to be a far less organized and much more chaotic affair than she had imagined. You really have to read her article all the way to its remarkable punchline though, to consider the possibility I am contemplating.

Go read it now before I spoil it for you in the next paragraph!

Janaki writes about trying to figure out how the drive was organized, and who called the plays (so to speak) in deciding when and how the kumkis charge and herd the wild elephant, and in what direction. What she discovered in trying to work out the chain of command is truly remarkable. First she was told that Forest Department Officials decide on the path for the drive. The higher officers appeared to pass the buck on to the forest guards on foot patrol. The guards weren’t organized enough to be in charge either, so then she was told it was the mahouts riding the kumkis who were really calling the shots. But then, the big kumki in that operation had a mind of his own, and they had to fire shots in the air to get him under control. So who really runs the drive?


The clash of the titans. Chasing the interloper. Photo: Janaki Lenin, in The Hindu

As the responsibility of the drive moved down the hierarchy, I couldn’t be sure if it indeed stopped with the mahouts. But there was no one else below them.

A couple of days later, I met a senior official of the first organisation. He said, “You know an amazing thing about these elephant drives: It’s not people who make the decisions; it’s the kumkis.

They hear and understand the infrasound communications between the wild elephants. And the kumkis decide the best course of action.”

Astonishing as it may seem, it actually makes sense if you think about the social lives of elephants a bit. Especially what we are learning in recent years about the long-distance communication networks they appear to maintain using infrasound. At elephant camps in various forests in India, domestic elephants are often left alone at night to wander the woods when they are not working—albeit with a heavy chain they must drag around so their mahouts can find them in the morning. It is common for these domestic elephants to go consort with wild ones, and even make babies with them! So it may well be that the kumki in Janaki’s tale actually knew the “rogue” wild elephant personally, and decided to take aggressive tactics on his own. Which may be why it makes sense to let the kumkis take the lead in these elephant drives.

This raises a remarkable possibility that may be beyond the imagination of mainstream wildlife managers and conservationists, especially in the western countries wedded to the metaphor of control over nature. Let the elephants, the domestic ones, decide how to herd the wild ones to avoid conflicts with humans! That, of course, in addition to changing our crop protection and land use strategies in ways that avoid conflict in the first place, as recommended by Fernando and colleagues in PLoS One. Thus may we build a real partnership with the elephants instead of ongoing conflict. For the domestic elephant knows humans better than the wild one, and may be best placed to properly communicate the real risk-assessment in these increasingly fraught HEC situations.

It may seem ironic, sad even, that we turn domestic elephants against their own kind, use them to control their wild cousins. Just as we have used them in forestry operations to cut down the trees from their own former habitats. It need not be so, however, if we actually pay closer attention to elephant behavior, both wild and domestic, and establish better communication with them so we can actually work together as partners in this. We manage our farms and people to reduce temptation for the wild males, while the kumkis help us keep them in line, away from people. 

Most of India’s forests are gone, and forestry operations no longer really rely on elephants to haul logs. Their other uses, as beasts of burden and war making, are equally obsolete. Apart from offering rides to tourists, the future prospects for these forest-camp elephants seem dim. Why not give them a new purpose, as intermediaries between humans and their wild cousins, helping us negotiate a dynamic truce, if not a lasting peace?

For our part, we must abandon our dominant metaphor of control (even couched as stewardship) over nature.

 

Reference:

Fernando, P., Leimgruber, P., Prasad, T., & Pastorini, J. (2012). Problem-Elephant Translocation: Translocating the Problem and the Elephant? PLoS ONE, 7 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0050917

Austin’s urban bats pour out into the warm summer night

One of the factors attracting almost 4000 ecologists to downtown Austin in the middle of a hot Texas summer, I’m sure, are bats. Urban bats. Not the high-tech gizmo-laden kind from comic books, but tiny furry creatures that emerge from their urban lair in the heart of Austin every summer night to wreak vigilante justice on insects! Its a remarkable phenomenon: a breeding colony of some 1.5 million bats roosting under/inside the heavily trafficked Congress Avenue bridge smack-dab in the middle of the city.

What an amazing example of reconciliation ecology in practice! A bridge retrofit in 1980 resulted in structural changes that created crevices underneath the bridge which led to hollow spaces inside. Perfect habitat for the Mexican Free-tailed Bat, which soon discovered the swank new dwellings—a rent-free, safe, roomy dwelling, overlooking a fabulous river view, plenty of food nearby, and a safe environment to raise kids n teach them how to catch bugs; what’s not to like?—and moved in in droves. After initial fears and concerns about these seriously misunderstood creatures, fears that were allayed by Bat Conservation International, Austinites settled into an easy coexistence with the little creatures, which have continued to return to the bridge every spring from their winter homes in Mexico, to raise new broods by the hundreds of thousands. BatCon’s website has more about this colony’s history and social / economic significance.

This morning I had gone out early to see the bats return to roost in the dawn. I returned in the evening, with my iPad, to see the more remarkable phenomenon of mass emergence at night. The above video is the result – watch it full screen in the highest possible resolution (480P) for the best view. The clip starts a bit slow as I was waiting for the show to start along with a patiently sweating throng under the bridge. The bats started streaming out from the below the far end of the bridge first, so they are a bit hard to see – squint at the lowest strip of the sky near the lower-middle of the screen to see the stream. Keep watching, though, because soon enough more bats came out from right over our heads, and I managed to catch multiple streams pouring out into the evening sky, and a nice view of the sunset too! You’ll also hear the clicking of the bats as they navigated their way around the struts of the bridge, and squeals of delight and amazement from the watching humans.

Watch closely, and you might also notice a curious pattern to their flight under the bridge – the bats on the northern end of the bridge (where I was) wend their way around the struts and pillars supporting their bridge all the way to near the southern end where they then take to the sky as part of the main stream of traffic! I wonder why, except for once or twice during the peak of flow, they don’t just leave the bridge at once instead of joining that single stream. Mysterious and fascinating.

Later, talking to a volunteer docent from Bat Conservation International on the bridge, I learnt that the numbers were probably at the highest for the year because mama bats had weaned their pups of this spring, and were bringing them out to sample the night’s delights!

What a wonderful experience to watch this remarkable natural phenomenon happen right in the middle of a major urban area. And how amazing to see the wonder on the faces of humans crowding the bridge (some 8 million come to watch them every year, I’m told) for a glimpse of bats on a hot day. If this is possible in the middle of Texas, with all its rattlesnake-round-ups and evolution-denying schoolboards, surely we can find other ways to accommodate other wildlife in the midst of our own habitats now blanketing most of the land.

Watching the bats, mamas, pups, and all, drawing such a human crowd, with many a child gaping in awe… what a perfect way to end the ESA meeting, which had as its main theme: Earth Stewardship! There may yet be hope for our species and cohabitants of spaceship Earth, it seems…

To be a bird, oh to keep on singing, in a noisy urbanizing world

Among the many ways we are transforming the planet and its habitats for other species, one that is only now receiving some attention is that of sensory pollution. This is when we pollute the environment in such ways as to interfere with the sensory perception and communication systems of animals – i.e., dull their senses in potentially important ways. While much attention has been paid—and justly so, ever since Rachel Carson’s clarion call—to the wide variety of chemical pollutants we’ve introduced into habitats all over the world, we haven’t really paid much attention to the sensory effluvia that come in the wake of modern civilization. Two common ways we mess up the sensory systems of animals are by interfering with the visual and auditory channels of communication: e.g., increasing turbidity in water makes it difficult for fish to see and communicate with each other using visual signals (color patterns, changes to and movements thereof); increasing noise from our cacophonous machinery on land and in water makes it difficult for animals to talk to each other. We are a flashy, noisy, brash, uncouth, species indeed! No consideration for the sensibilities of our planet-mates…

But that may be changing. Sensory pollution is getting increasing attention from biologists in recent years, as exemplified by a symposium on the topic at Behavior 2011, the joint meeting of the Animal Behavior Society and the International Ethological Conference, being held at Indiana University this week. I wish I had been able to attend, especially for this symposium, because I’ve been thinking about and trying to study the effects of urban noise on bird song and behavior for some years now. Although I couldn’t travel to the meeting, I’m happy that my lab was well represented – see below!

After co-authoring the first comprehensive review of urban bioacoustics (i.e., the study of how animals use sound; in cities), then moving to Fresno with this job, actually measuring the effects in wild birds, and testing some of the theoretical ideas outlined in our review was one of my first priorities. Easier said than done, though – especially for a naive faculty member coming to grips with the nature of teaching and the student body at an institution like CSU-Fresno! Between my increasingly heavy and chaotic teaching load, and several unreliable graduate students, it became rather a stop-start project – more stop than start for several years. That all changed a year ago, however, when two eager new graduate students entered my lab, already interested in birdsong and very keen to tackle the subject of urban noise. Over the past year, Jenny Phillips and Pedro Garcia have been studying the effects of noise on the songs of two species (seen above) that occur in urban and rural areas around here: the White-crowned Sparrow, winter visitor to the valley from northern breeding grounds, and the House Finch, year round resident in these parts. An interesting opportunity to compare what noise pollution does to the songs and singing behavior of two rather different species: one migratory, the other sedentary, one singing to claim territory and warn competitors, the other warbling in the spring to attract mates!

Today, Jenny and Pedro presented the first results from their research as a poster at Behavior 2011. Having helped them analyze their data and design the poster over the past few days, I’ve been something of an anxious parent this week, wondering how they are doing out there on their own, even as I followed the #behav11 hashtag on twitter to see what I was missing! A short while ago, a tweet (of course) informed me that “…they did a gr8 job!!” Phew! Not that I expected anything less…

If you, like me, missed the whole meeting, allow me to share their poster here, starting with this abstract:

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EFFECTS OF URBAN NOISE ON SONG STRUCTURE IN A SEDENTARY AND A MIGRATORY BIRD SPECIES
Jenny Phillips, Pedro Garcia, Lauryn Moles & Madhusudan Katti 
California State University, Fresno, United States

Many animal species are dependent upon vocal communication to mate and defend territories. Selection will favor individuals that produce vocalizations that transmit best in their environments. The sensory drive concept suggests that environmental conditions, such as ambient sound, will influence the evolution of vocal behavior. Thus, background noise levels may have a profound effect on communication. We study how urban noise affects the cultural evolution of birdsong in two species: the migratory white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii) and the sedentary house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus). These two species are ideal study organisms because they each have one song type, are territorial, and are easy to identify. We recorded songs and ambient noise concurrently across the Fresno-Clovis Metropolitan Area (FCMA) and in outlying rural areas for comparative analysis of acoustic properties, in particular the frequency and temporal structure of songs. Because song influences fitness via phenotypic and genotypic mate quality, understanding how song changes in an urban environment may allow us to predict species adaptability in a changing world.

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And here is the full poster – leave a comment if you have any thoughts on this ongoing study:

Phillips_et_al-ABS2011-Poster.pdf
Download this file

Cities – some thoughts on a Radiolab exploration

If you are a public radio junkie, and a science+art junkie, you’re probably already addicted to WNYC’s wonderful Radiolab podcast featuring Jad Abumarad and the incomparable Robert Krulwich. If you aren’t already addicted to this podcast… what are you waiting for? Point your browser thither right now, and thence find the appropriate link to download the podcast on your device of choice. Got it? Good.

Now, for this science+radio junkie with a lot of urban ecology on the mind, the Radiolab guys offered up the perfect trifecta recently, when they did a whole hour-long exploration of Cities!! I’ve been mulling it over ever since I heard it several months ago, wanting to write a lengthier blog post about it, but what with teaching, travel, and actually studying urban ecology, never seem to find the time. This episode was brought to mind afresh last week during a trip to Tempe, Arizona, while attending a very stimulating workshop on urban ecology and resilience (hosted by the good folks at the Stockholm Resilience Center). The workshop was a precursor to the 2011 Resilience conference, where I also presented some of our ongoing work on urban water policy, water use, and biodiversity in Fresno-Clovis. As we drove back midway through the conference, while crossing over from the Sonoran to the Mojave deserts, I subjected my sociologist friend and colleague Andrew Jones to this show – and figured I might as well share it here with you. I think it is a rather (typically for Radiolab) rich and unusual exploration of cities from different perspectives, and contains ideas I want to pursue further, some in writing here in time to come. Meanwhile, you can listen to the show right here, right now:

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http://www.radiolab.org/media/audioplayer/player5.swf

The parts that resonate the most with me are in the first several segments, on the comparative metabolism of cities. Could be in part because I am a sucker for comparative ecology and metabolic scaling, more so because I also happen to know Bob Levine, psychologist colleaage here at Fresno State, who shared some of his work on the geography of time with us during an evening at the Central Valley Café Scientifique several years ago. Having lived in a number of cities of various shapes, sizes, and cultures, I have experienced some of this variation in the pace of city life, of how we experience the flow of time in different places. So I can begin to see how cities shape our perception of time in interesting ways. What really intrigues me now, after listening to the show again, is this: do other animals (especially the ones with the sharper brains and cleverer minds like us) also perceive the flow of time differently in different cities? Does the flow of time — or, to put it in behavioral ecology terms: do the rates of certain behaviors and/or the overall time-budget — for a macaque in Bangalore differ from that of its cousins in Mysore or Papanasam? Does a Scrub Jay in Fresno hop or call or cache food at a higher rate than one in Visalia? Are the White-crowned sparrows wintering in Fresno singing at a slower rate than those in Phoenix or San Francisco? I think this calls for another participatory global citizen science project, just like Bob Levine and the Radiolab guys did with humans. I’m developing a comparable simple-but-robust metric and protocol that could be used with urban birds and mammals, and will share it once I’ve got it worked out. If you have any ideas or suggestions on how best to measure the flow of time in non-human animals, please do write to me. This may not amount to a whole lot of science – but I wonder…

The Ant and the Elderly – a parable for an aging society?

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What a lovely story of an evolved society finding ways to integrate its elderly members into productive roles to keep the larger social unit functioning. Division of labor stratified by age/mandible sharpness – surely even we can learn something from that!

A beautiful otherworldly mating video – NSFW… if you’re a slug!

http://c.brightcove.com/services/viewer/federated_f9?isVid=1&isUI=1

Calm Eagle centered in the midst of a Dunlin storm.

This is just breathtakingly beautiful!

Hat-tip: Audubon California via Facebook.