She was nineteen years old, and for the first time really alone in the field. Joyce Poole left for Amboseli, in the far south of Kenya, in 1975 on her parents’ Volkswagen bus. She studied biology in the US, but was on a gap year in Nairobi, where her father headed a conservation organization. “I longed for a fieldwork project for the summer holidays. That’s how I came into contact with the American elephant researcher Cynthia Moss, who said: go to Amboseli, to study the male elephants.”
It was a time when little was known about African elephants – and certainly about their behavior. In the 1950s, the field of ethology had blossomed within biology, with big names such as Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen and Karl von Frisch. And in the late 1960s and early 1970s, British zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton and Cynthia Moss put elephant research in Africa on the map. “But little was known about the behavior of elephant bulls. And so I left, with a large camera, a pencil and a notebook that had already cleverly printed elephant ears. In those ears I had to very precisely draw in all the tears and fraying, so that I could distinguish the different animals from each other in that way.”
Amboseli was not a new place for Poole. At the age of six, she had already seen elephants in that national park, including an imposing and dominant male. She then asked her father what that elephant would do if he got angry. “Then he crushes our car to the size of a pea”, was his answer. Just then, the elephant attacked – stopping just in the nick of time, right in front of the car. A mock attack. “But I was shivering on the floor, behind the driver’s seat.”
That very first encounter would develop into an elephant fascination that has lasted for nearly sixty years, and which recently led to the largest, most comprehensive database of elephant behavior ever: The Elephant Ethogram† It is because of that ethogram – in short: an overview of the behavior of a certain animal species – that Poole and I talk to each other, via a video link. She is at home in Norway, the country of birth of her husband Petter Granli, with whom she founded the ElephantVoices foundation. Together they want African savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) give a vote. What is special about their elephant ethogram is that they not only extensively described the behavior of elephants, but also made photos, sound clips and video recordings of them.
The tip of the trunk
The result is one for everyone accessible website with about 3,000 multimedia files. Hundreds of different elephant behaviors can be seen in the audio and video clips. This partly concerns individual movements and sounds, and partly concerns characteristic sequences of successive behaviours: so-called behavioral constellations. For each behavior, it is also indicated in what context it may occur, for example during courtship or for protection, and which body parts are involved.
During that flapping, a very low sound is heard, as if you are shaking thick cardboard through the air
It also states whether visible behavior is accompanied by scent or sound signals, or even ‘seismic’ signals: some elephant sounds have such low frequencies, around 10 hertz, that they are inaudible to humans and that they travel not only through the air but also move through the ground. Poole: “The tip of an elephant’s trunk contains certain cells, the so-called Pacini bodies, which are extremely sensitive to vibrations. Those bodies are also located in their feet. Other mammals have them, but in elephants they are present in remarkably high densities.”
All that scientific background knowledge was not yet available when Poole started her fieldwork as a young student in 1975. “I was a complete layman. I remember that in one of the first days, four male elephants came up to the bus. Quite intimidating, I tended to hide behind the front seat just like I did in childhood. Then I heard them breathing very loudly, it just went on and on. What kind of sound is that, I wondered. Turns out they just fell asleep.”
In the following years, she returned, at different times of the year. In this way she gained more and more insight into the behavioral patterns. “Sometimes individual males were calm, sometimes aggressive, and I started to suspect they were having a sexual cycle. That sounds plausible now, but was really new at the time. During that aggressive period, they spread urine everywhere and had a very pungent odor, and they secreted an oily sweat from glands between their eyes and ears. We already knew about Asian elephants that such glands were active during the ‘musth’ – a Persian word for ‘sexually intoxicated’ – but in African elephants it was still a completely unknown phenomenon at that time.”
One oily sweat comes from glands of a male elephant.
In short, Poole was the first to describe the African elephant rut; later she also obtained her doctorate on it. Among other things, she discovered that the males have a distinctive gait and flap their ears in a certain way when they are in heat. “During that flapping, there is a very low sound, as if you were shaking thick cardboard through the air. I came into contact with a researcher, Katy Payne, who had recorded such infrasound in whales, and together we discovered infrasound in African elephants in 1984.” In the current ethogram, visual and audible sounds are the main tone. “They are simply easier to perceive than infrasound.”
The registration of visible and audible behavior is still done in the classical ethological way. Within a certain period of time – for example: half an hour – all movements and all sounds from a jeep are recorded in detail, and where possible also recorded with a microphone and video. The latter is almost unique to ethograms. Poole: „There is an example known of a video ethogram of laboratory mice, but you will not find such an interactive database of wild animals anywhere. And for elephants, classical, descriptive ethograms without moving images were available, but they were limited to a certain context – for example, only mating behaviour. We wanted to create a comprehensive ethogram.” Laughing: „But we misjudged how much work it was… In fact, recording is a never ending storywe will certainly continue to supplement the ethogram in the coming years.”
Fortunately, more and more people are becoming aware of the value of wild nature
One of the difficult aspects of ethology is that behavior is not always unambiguous. In different populations, for example, the same gesture can mean something different, or they have a different gesture for the same situation. The elephant ethogram contains not only images from Amboseli and the Kenyan Masai Mara reserve, but also from Gorongosa in Mozambique. “The elephants there are much more fearful, not only because there are fewer tourists, but because the older elephants were traumatized by the civil war between 1977 and 1992, when many elephants were slaughtered. Many young elephants have not experienced this, but have learned aggressive behavior from their parents.” Poole also co-authored a study published last year that found that many more tuskless females have been born since that Civil War. The intense poaching at that time allowed for natural selection of the gene for tusklessness.
Also read: Ivory hunting affects tusk evolution
“It is terrible when you consider how the elephants in Gorongosa have been treated. All the trust towards people is gone, but they work extremely well together. For example, I saw remarkably often behavior there that I call the trunk-high five. When we arrived, they literally put their heads together for a common high five with their trunks. Like they were a soccer team just before a game. And then they started chasing us. Once we were successfully chased away, you saw those high fives again.”
high fiving in Gorongosa, Mozambique.
Not everything elephants do is big and dramatic, sometimes it’s just about nuances. The way they press their ears against the body, the way they move the tip of their trunks… A fertile female, for example, can behave quite normal to the untrained eye, to the point of dullness. But if you look more closely, you can see that every subtle movement on her part is a signal to the males.” At the same time, there will always be signals that we as humans miss, she adds. “As for those low-level seismic signals and the chemical signals, we’re simply not able to pick up everything, even with advanced equipment.”
Don’t understand everything
Maybe we don’t need to understand everything about the elephants, she says after a short silence. “As long as we understand the most important thing: that elephants are closer to people than we sometimes think. We are not the only complex beings on Earth. Elephants also care about their families, elephants also mourn. And elephants are also thinking about how to tackle problems. Their bad luck is that those problems have been increasing rapidly over the last century, largely because of us.”
The African savanna elephant is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List. According to the latest official estimates, from 2016, there were about 415,450 African bush elephants on the continent. The African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) – which has not been studied by Poole and Granli – is in fact critically endangered. “Under the pressure of our population growth, the habitat for elephants is declining. And I don’t mean so much people in Africa. Our Western craving for avocados, for example, is turning nature areas in Africa into agricultural areas.”
Precisely because she is so concerned with the fate of the elephants, she decided to go into research, she says. “When I was 11, in 1967, I heard chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall talking in Africa. She was introduced by her famous teacher, Louis Leaky. I remember nudging my mother and saying, “I want to be like her!”
People can live well with other animal species, she concludes. “As long as they are willing to delve into those species. Fortunately, more and more people are becoming aware of the value of wild nature, and more and more local conservationists are also joining in Kenya.”
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