The value of elephant memories

Interesting recent research shows that elephants memories are very complex.  Older elephants pass down memories and associations to other generations.

For example, researchers now know that elephants can distinguish different human groups by their clothing and voice.  Evidence shows that elephants recognize and fear tribal hunters’ clothing colors, smells, and voice tones but have little interest in farming tribal groups, seeing them as harmless.

The matriarch teaches young elephants what and who to be wary of even when the young elephant has yet to experience it for himself.

From The Guardian:

The idea of elephants as information networks should matter to conservationists, because in this view of the world every elephant killed by humans is a network user or editor lost. With the extinction of elephants, we would also see the extinction of a network of elephant experiences – where the waterholes are; who to befriend and who to avoid; where the grasses come late or early; where the mud holes are plentiful and where the crocodiles are not; why it’s a good idea to avoid men in red garments; when the moon lights the night each month; where dead friends and ancestors let out their last tortured gasps. This is network chatter. It is network traffic. It has value. We are told that elephants matter because they are spectacularly intelligent and charismatic and because they are ecosystem engineers and umbrella species, protecting the wildlife of the region. But, what if they were also worth conserving for the information architecture that their societies utilise?


Synthetic ivory

Oxford biologist Fritz Vollrath is working on creating a synthetic ivory.  Similar to mother-of-pearl, the goal would be to look, feel, and act like the natural substance yet be manmade.

It is a lengthy process of trial and error.

From Smithsonian Magazine:

Under the microscope, ivory reveals its molecular structure: a three-dimensional collagen scaffolding filled with hydroxyl apatite minerals and water. Vollrath aimed to understand this distinct makeup well enough to improve upon the plastic-based substitutes that currently exist with a truly “biologically inspired” replica. “We’re still struggling to understand why it’s such a tough material,” Vollrath said. “It combines two kinds of material, mineral and collagen. Neither of them are great materials by themselves, but if you mix them up … it becomes something different.”

If successful, the project will still take years to become acccessible to the general public.  Then, of course, comes the question: will synthetic ivory help or hurt elephants?  The hope is that synthetic ivory would drive down the price of real ivory and poachers would no longer find their work profitable and get out of the business. But, there is concern that synthetic ivory would simply make it easier for real ivory to hide and be sold in the marketplace, thus maintaining or driving up demand for elephant tusks.

In any case, Vollrath hopes his research gives us insight into what makes elephant tusks so strong and so unusual in the natural world.



Photo taken at my local zoo



Humans benefit from saving elephants

The Guardian posted ten selfish reasons to save elephants – and they aren’t really selfish, as they can lead to medical advances that help a great many people.

By studying elephants, humans are beginning to learn more about the aging process, for example.  Elephants have a similar lifespan, and similar age-related diseases such as osteoarthritis.  They have a similar walking pattern to our own, so any insights researchers discover with elephants can likely transfer over to our own species.

I wrote a post previously discussing cancer research with elephant DNA, and that takes the number 1 spot on The Guardian’s list.  Number 2 on the list talks about elephant hearing and how Stanford University is trying to develop human hearing aids that would use vibrational sounds.

Please head over to the site to read the whole list – it is quite interesting!


Killer whale with high levels of PCBs

Lulu the killer whale died last year, caught in fishing rope.  Results have now been published about tests on her carcass.  Lulu had incredibly high levels of PCBs in her body, one hundred times accepted levels.  This likely made her infertile, and PCB also makes killer whales prone to poor immunity and cancer.

The killer whale population has been declining and PCB is likely a big reason why.

PCBs were banned in the US in 1979, but for over fifty years the chemical was used in refrigerators, electrical insulators, and sprayed on roads.  Of course, chemicals entered the water system and did not simply disappear.

A killer whale, near the top of the food chain, would have high levels of PCB since each level of the food chain would have consumed the chemical.

If this story makes you wonder what’s lurking in your seafood meal, you are not overly paranoid.  Fish and other seafood often have dangerous chemicals that we ingest.  Therefore, it is wise to limit seafood consumption and check environmental standards of your seafood through sites like Seafood Watch by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.



Protected elephants in danger

A new study shows elephants are not doing well, even in protected areas in Africa.  The cause of their death is most often poaching.  The study is shocking, estimating that there are less than 360,000 savannah elephants left in the wild.  The study is important since it was a massive undertaking – developing the largest database for any mammal.


According to The Express, a leader of the study at the University of Pretoria, Ashley Robson, said:

“While the magnitude of loss due to poaching is devastating – 730 000 elephants are missing across the 73 protected areas assessed – I don’t see our work as more doom and gloom.  On the contrary, we provide ecologically meaningful goals for elephant conservationists to work toward. It’s a positive step for elephants.”

In other words, by knowing the numbers, we can understand the problem better and hopefully come up with better solutions to save elephants.

photo: taken at Elephant Nature Park



Elephant Body Awareness


Photo: taken at the Elephant Nature Park

Another study has been done on elephant intelligence, and – no surprise – it concludes that elephants are exceptionally smart.  Elephants have often been given the mirror test to show self awareness.  Yet, unlike humans, elephants do not rely on vision as much as their other senses.  So, researchers decided to give elephants another test, which humans master at about eighteen months old.

From the Washington Post:

In tests of human body awareness, children are told to push a shopping cart toward a caregiver. There’s a trick: Tied behind the shopping cart is a mat. The children begin the test standing on the mat, which prevents them from pushing the cart forward. To be successful, children have to realize their own bodies are obstacles. Children older than 18 months figure out that they should step off the mat and steer the cart from the side.

As Plotnik and Dale wrote Wednesday in the journal Scientific Reports, elephants do something remarkably similar. “They have clearly recognized that their body can get in the way of something,” Plotnik said.

To test the elephants, the scientists traveled to Thailand, where they posed a problem to 12 Asian pachyderms. The elephants had to pick up a stick and hand it over to their mahouts, or trainers. In the experimental condition, the scientists tied the stick to a rubber mat. As in the study of human children, the elephants began the test standing on the mat. The animals “very quickly” realized that they had to step off the mat to hand over the stick, Plotnik said.

Animal Welfare

img_1603I love all animals, not just elephants, so I must dedicate a post to this terrible news.

I was horrified that the USDA removed animal welfare records from its website this past week.

What did the animal welfare site report?

You could look up a breeder to see if conditions were humane, and you could make an informed decision on that dog or horse you were hoping to purchase.

You could look up a lab to see a census of the animals they studied, and how they were handled.  Was your local university wisely spending research money?  Was the lab giving animals like chimpanzees adequate space, adequate food, and adequate care?

You could find a corporation and read reports about animal testing.  You could read reports about zoo animals, circus animals, and learn how animals were transported.

USDA inspectors wrote detailed reports about sites they visited, noting violations that often made the companies/labs/zoos/breeders make positive changes.

Overall, 1200 research labs were included on the site, many which use your taxpayer dollars.  Over 7000 facilities keeping animals had reports open to the public.


Why was the site removed?

According to Science Magazine, “The agency said in a statement that it revoked public access to the reports ‘based on our commitment to being transparent … and maintaining the privacy rights of individuals.'”

This sounds like a terrible excuse.

OK, so why was the site really removed?

Blame the lobbyists working for “Big Ag” – i.e. huge agriculture firms that could care less about animal welfare and/or human safety and focus solely on massive profits.   An explanation from Science Magazine:

“The Trump administration hired Brian Klippenstein to lead the USDA transition team. Klippenstein is the executive director of Protect the Harvest, a Columbia, Missouri–based pro-agriculture group that has supported Right to Farm bills, which protect the agriculture industry from certain lawsuits and regulations, including those involving animal welfare. The group has also opposed restrictions on large-scale dog breeding operations—sometimes referred to as “puppy mills”– which are regulated under the Animal Welfare Act. USDA’s decision to remove documents relating to violations of both the Horse Protection Act and Animal Welfare Act would be consistent with Protect the Harvest’s policy goals.”

Why should I care?

If you care about animals, you should care.

If you don’t like animals, you should still care – how we treat animals offers a window into how we treat human beings.  If regulations can be swept aside for animal welfare, you better believe regulations will be swept aside for human health and safety too.

What can I do?

First, take heart that the USDA says the decision is not yet final.  There is still a little time to make your voice heard.

Second, be happy that usual adversaries are coming together to protest.  After all, research labs (often highly distrusted by animal rights groups) also like to have this information easily accessible – they use the reports to find scientific trends, as well as make their case to the public as to why animal research may be beneficial.

But, we can’t depend solely on animal rights organizations, the Humane Society, labs, or zoos to petition the USDA.  Citizens need to speak out too.

1. Leave feedback on the USDA website

2. Write and call the USDA

U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave., S.W.
Washington, DC 20250


3. Social media users should post comments and animal photos with #noUSDAblackout

4. Notify your senators and congress people and urge them to speak out.

5. Support organizations like the Humane Society.

In the meantime, how do I get animal welfare reports?

You would have to file a formal request through the Freedom of Information Act, which can take months to be approved.



Photos: my beloved dog, my local zoo, and at a local horse rescue organization where I volunteer every year from April to October