So entangled are the lives of humans and elephants that almost every person has an interspecific story to share. Whether if its a memory of from a favourite childhood book, a transformative experience with a live elephant (positive or negative), or an attempt to harness of the symbolic or physical power of elephants. I started studying elephants in an effort to understand life through their lives, and in doing so, to widen the comparative framework for human life history. Elephants share some of our most extreme traits, such as long lives, high investment in relatively few offspring, large brains and complex social lives. All of this evolved on a convergent evolutionary trajectory, which makes for some striking parallels and contrasts between the species.
In this talk I will first present what I mean by life history; the study of the timing, shape and pace of lives. To compare life histories, we can distill lives to their key landmarks, such as, in mammals, birth, weaning, sexual maturity, reproduction (or not) and death; those key experiences that we see as universal, but experience as individuals.
I will introduce two key sites at which I study elephants, to highlight the context in which these studies are conducted, the availability of data, and the different but relevant limitations of studying wild and captive elephants. The first site is in Myanmar, where I have studied captive Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) working in the timber industry. The second is wild free-ranging African savanna elephants (Loxodonta Africana) in the greater Kruger biosphere, where elephants traverse the human-made border between South Africa and Mozambique. Both of these sites represent fascinating environments for studying elephants, with hunting (legal and illegal), workload, stress, climate change, protected areas (such as nature reserves, fenced parks, national parks and transfrontier parks), tourism and governance potentially affecting the animals.
Patterns of births, mortality and fertility are a great starting point to understanding a big puzzle like an elephant life. Ill show these and how they compare to our lives, and link to the human-influenced environments elephants inhabit. Ill then discuss one key life history phase; growth, and the potential for a body size versus reproduction trade-off elephants.
In the second part of the findings section, I aim to illustrate the value of a behavioural ecological approach to understanding life history. One of the key characteristics of male elephant life is the lag between sexual maturity and reproduction. During my fellowship, I have been investigating how older and younger males live their lives around this in different environments. I will present patterns of social associations by age and temporally, genetic structure and vocal communication in male elephants. Finally, Ill return to the links between humans and elephants by proposing avenues for the application of this work to conservation.
The Conservation Applications of Research on Elephant Behavior and Ecology
The Conservation applications of Research on Elephant Behavior and Ecology
Tuesday Colloquium - Work in Progress06/21/18
The Lives of Elephants