Young Students Contribute to Study of Elephant Behavior
2013-08-21

By THOMAS FULLER
Published: August 18, 2013

Elephants
Elephants taking part in research at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort
in Chiang Saen, Thialand.


BANGKOK — A recently published research paper on elephant behavior has all the hallmarks of academic literature — plentiful references, detailed methodology — until the reader looks more closely at the authors.

Thirteen contributors are students from the East Side Middle School in New York, and their participation marked one of the first times that teenagers have co-authored a scientific article alongside researchers with advanced degrees.

The research, which appeared in April in the journal PLoS One, centered on whether elephants understood hand gestures from humans. But by including the young people in the study, Joshua Plotnik, the lead researcher, was essentially conducting an experiment within an experiment: Can young students, with their fresh eyes and questioning minds, help unlock the inner workings of the elephant mind?

“A 12-year-old kid is inquisitive, motivated, enthusiastic and extremely impressionable,” Mr. Plotnik said in an interview in Thailand, where he is a lecturer at Mahidol University and is helping design after-school activities for Thai students on elephant conservation. “They can think about it from simple but important ways.”

Mr. Plotnik is one of a handful of animal behavior specialists focusing on elephants, whom he describes as belonging to the animal kingdom’s “cognitive elite.”

His previous work includes research that showed that some elephants are capable of recognizing themselves in a mirror, a rare trait shared by a small group of animals including the great apes, dolphins and the magpie.

Frans B.M. de Waal, a prominent animal behavior specialist at Emory University in Atlanta, says Mr. Plotnik’s mirror study and other experiments involving tool use suggest that elephants may be able to perform on the level of apes in certain tasks. But elephant behavior studies are still at an early stage, he said.

“Everyone seems to know how smart elephants are, but science really does not have a lot of hard evidence in this regard,” Mr. de Waal said.

In choosing middle-school students as his partners, Mr. Plotnik had two purposes, he said. He drew on their analytical skills “not corrupted by the academic environment.” And as an evangelist for the need for conservation, he helped instill in young people the urgency of declining elephant herds.

The number of elephants in Africa and Asia has fallen sharply over the past century, as poachers in Africa kill elephants for ivory and human civilization encroaches on the habitats of elephants in South and Southeast Asia.

James Hill, one of the older students involved in the research (he was 15 years old when the project began in 2010), said the project gave him an affection for the animals and a greater concern about their well-being.

“I was a bit of a conservationist before, but not as much as now,” Mr. Hill said by telephone. “I had a very passive idea that conservation was something that society should be doing. But I wasn’t concerned that it was a critical situation — which it really is. Afterwards I realized how much individual responsibility everybody has.”

Mr. Plotnik and the students devised a number of experiments on elephant behavior. The one that led to the published article involved seven captive elephants in northern Thailand who were shown two buckets, only one of which contained food. Mr. Plotnik or the elephant’s handler, known as a mahout, stood behind the buckets, pointing to the one with food.

Mr. Plotnik filmed the experiments and sent video to the students in New York, who analyzed and suggested refinements. He would also communicate with the group periodically via Skype to discuss the research.

“I’m not going to say that middle schoolers had the most influence on how the experiment ended up,” said Dannah Seecoomar, who was in the sixth grade when the project started. “But we were able to make a contribution. It’s always a great feeling to know that you’re involved in something bigger than yourself.”

As part of their research the students acted out a mock scenario of a clash between farmers and elephants and how elephants react to threats to their food supply and their young.

“It’s clear that their emotions are so much deeper than we recognize,” Ms. Seecoomar, who is now 13 years old, said of elephants.

Elephants are one of a small number of animals capable of heightened empathy, Mr. Plotnik said. They show emotional distress when a member of their herd are in danger or injured and they have been known to behave differently when arriving at a spot where family members died.

During his research, Mr. Plotnik consulted with mahouts, drawing on their centuries of accumulated knowledge and traditions training elephants. In the bucket experiment the mahouts predicted — wrongly it turns out — that elephants would follow exclusively visual cues from humans.

Mr. Plotnik said the experiment and others he is conducting underline how much elephants rely on sound and smell — and much less sight.

Only when trainers used voice commands in conjunction with the hand signals did the elephants chose the correct bucket of food.

Mr. de Waal, who has read the study but was not involved in the research, called the paper “intriguing” and part of what he described as an intense debate on the role domestication plays in interaction with humans.

Mr. Plotnik says the research might be helpful in designing barriers that use sound or smell to protect people from marauding wild elephants hunting for food. One idea that has emerged from research in Africa is that beehives might be a good deterrent; elephants have been shown to be afraid of bees and can hear the buzzing.

For Mr. Hill, the student, the experiment made him realize the importance of getting inside an elephant’s head.

“It made elephants startlingly more complex to me,” he said. “You have to approach an elephant in an elephant way.

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