Scientists Develop a ‘Google Translate’‑Like Catalog to Understand Elephant Behavior
Scientists have created a digital audio-visual database chronicling the behavior, gestures, and calls of African elephants — to help humans understand elephants better, and aid the preservation of the species.
Published last month by ElephantVoices, a non-profit group, the repository contains a list of more than 500 behaviors exhibited by the African savanna elephant — documented through almost 3,000 annotated videos, photographs, and audio files.
The researchers have made their database available to the public — hoping it gets more people to care about the animal that is facing a diverse range of anthropogenic, or human-caused, hazards. At present, populations of both Asian and African species of elephants face a variety of threats — ranging from habitat loss due to growing urbanization and the subsequent human-elephant conflict to poaching for the ivory trade.
“Elephants, quite honestly, are running out of time. They’re running out of space… And they need more people to care about them,” Joyce Poole, co-founder and scientific director of ElephantVoices, and co-creator of the database known as The Elephant Ethogram, told NPR. “[If] people can go in and see how very complex these animals are, how creative they are and how versatile their behavior is, how rich it is — that we could maybe inspire more people to care,” she explained.
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In the past, ethograms, similar large-scale databases used to study animal behavior, were created for chimpanzees and mice for scientific research. But researchers claim those weren’t nearly as exhaustive, and that the elephant database is the first ethogram of its scale ever created for any non-human wild animal. Technology, too, has made it easier to create an ethogram as comprehensive as this one — with data going back as early as 1907. “Without a multimedia approach, I see it as impossible to properly show and explain the behavior of a species, and we hope this will inspire other scientists to take a similar approach for other species,” Poole told Scientific American.
The researchers hope the database will serve as a useful tool for wildlife officials to differentiate between natural, healthy behavior in elephants as opposed to stressful reactions exhibited by them — alerting officials to poaching threats, or stressors like starvation.
Moreover, the ethogram can also serve as a valuable tool to assess the behavior of elephants in zoos, or at circuses — and understand their needs better. Cynthia Moss, founder of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Kenya, who wasn’t involved in the creation of the database, told Scientific American that she’s hopeful the database could, perhaps, help conservationists make a stronger case for ending elephant captivity itself. This could be done by demonstrating the severity of behavioral differences between captive elephants, and their wild, unfettered counterparts in forests.
“It’s an incredible scientific accomplishment and a wonderful addition to our knowledge. To have all the postures, gestures, vocalizations, signals displayed and explained in one place, I don’t know of anything else like it,” Moss told The New York Times.
However, experts believe that strong cultural differences exist between the behavior of elephants from different populations. To make the database more extensive, Poole hopes other researchers, too, will add their own observations and discoveries about elephants into the ethogram. “Now that the ‘Elephant Ethogram’ is publicly available, we hope that more of our colleagues will share unusual footage from their populations,” Poole told Scientific American.
“At a time when biodiversity is plummeting and the lives of elephants are being heavily impacted by humans, we also want to spell out to the world what we stand to lose,” she added.