NY Students Help Research Into How Elephants Respond To Verbal, Visual Cues
April 20, 2013

NY Students Help Research Into How Elephants Respond To Verbal, Visual Cues

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

According to new research published in Wednesday´s edition of the journal PLoS ONE, elephants are unable to recognize visual cues provided by humans — a discovery which could help shape future conservation efforts to help protect the massive mammals from poaching and other dangers.

The study was a collaboration between the non-profit organization Think Elephants International and a team of 12- to 14-year-old students from New York City´s East Side Middle School.

The research revealed the pachyderms are more responsive to vocal commands, the group explained in a statement. “If elephants are not primarily using sight to navigate their natural environment, human-elephant conflict mitigation techniques must consider what elephants´ main sensory modalities are and how elephants think so that they might be attracted or deterred effectively as a situation requires,” said Dr. Joshua Plotnik, founder and CEO of Think Elephants. “The loss of natural habitat, poaching for ivory, and human-elephant conflict are serious threats to the sustainability of elephants in the wild,” he added. “Put simply, we will be without elephants, and many other species in the wild, in less than 50 years if the world does not act.”

According to the organization, the paper´s publication was the climax of a three-year effort to create a comprehensive middle school curriculum designed to educate and involve youngsters directly in wildlife conservation efforts. The work was conducted at Think Elephants´ field site in northern Thailand, and students from the New York school participated during webcam conversation and direct weblinks to the elephant camp.

“We are so proud of our pilot program with East Side Middle School and hope to use this as a model for other schools throughout the state and country,” said Jen Pokorny, head of the organization´s education programs. “This wonderful group of students had an opportunity that very few young people have and, as a result, are now published co-authors on a significant piece of animal behavior research.

“[The students] were integrally involved in the development of the study, even helping to design some of the experimental control conditions,” she added. “Think Elephants is committed to showcasing these productive, informative and exciting student collaborations, and we believe similar studies can help to change the way in which young people observe and appreciate their global environment.”

Animal cognition experts have been paying a tremendous amount of attention on how animals interact both with each other and with humans, the researchers said. As part of their study, the authors tested whether captive elephants could follow visual cues or social cues such as pointing and gazing to find food hidden in one of two buckets. The creatures failed at the task, but were able to follow vocal commands telling them which bucket contained the food.

The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in Thailand, along with scientists from the Universities of Columbia, Cambridge and California-Davis were also involved in the research. The organization said, on the heels of the New York City program´s success, it will be expanded to Thai schools before the end of the year.