This video shows Koshik, a 22-year-old male Asian elephant, imitating Korean words by putting his trunk in his mouth to modulate his sound. A study of Koshik’s vocalizations (he can imitate five words) appears in the latest issue of Current Biology. The researchers hypothesize that spending seven of his formative years as the only elephant at Everland, a South Korean theme park, led Koshik to mimic the speech of the animals he did spend time with: humans.
There’s just one other well-known case of a “talking” elephant, Batyr, who lived in a Kazakhstan zoo, also isolated from others of his species. The researchers think that an attempt at social bonding may also be the reason that other animals, ranging from parrots to mammals like Hoover, the talking seal, and beluga whales, mimic the sounds of human speech. Koshik probably doesn’t mean the words he says: His vocabulary consists of commands frequently given to him by trainers, but while he has learned to obey them, he doesn’t seem perturbed if the humans around him don’t comply with his orders, one researcher told told Wired Science.
Creatures as large as elephants are unusual; it takes a long time to evolve such size.
How long does it take for a mammal as small as a mouse to evolve into something as large as an elephant? A really, really long time, a recent study has found: about 24 million generations, at minimum.
To get that number, researchers looked at the evolution of body mass over the last 70 million years, after the dinosaurs went extinct and surviving animals expanded into the ecological niches they left behind. That estimate is far longer than earlier estimates, which, extrapolating from bursts of super-fast evolution in mice, range from just 200,000 to 2 million generations. Such speedy evolution, in actuality, is probably not sustainable over the long term—hence the lengthy new estimate.
What’s the News: We’ve all probably heard the myth, made popular by Disney’s Dumbo, that elephants are afraid of mice. While that idea may not be exactly true (video), elephants do make sure to avoid another tiny critter: bees. Knowing this, zoologists from the University of Oxford loaded fences in Kenya with beehives, in hopes of deterring roaming African elephants from eating or trampling farmers’ crops. Now, two years later, the researchers are reporting in the African Journal of Ecology that the novel barriers are working wondrously and could be a viable option for protecting African croplands.
Coal ash: Two years after the coal ash spill in Roane County, Tennessee residents are still grappling with ash dust, housing buyouts, and potentially toxic water. The Tennessee Valley Authority, a government-owned corporation who runs the plant, claims the ash is non-toxic, while the EPA takes it’s time deciding if it should be classified as hazardous waste.
Wolves: Activist group Center For Biological Diversity is planning to sue the Department of the Interior if they don’t expand wolf ranges in the lower 48. Some states in the Northern Rocky Mountains, where the population has made a comeback, have legalized hunting to protect their herds.
Elephant genomes: New genetics data is showing that the African elephant is actually two species: the forest elephant is smaller than the savanna elephant and has a much smaller population. Dividing the “African elephant” into two species is going to be important to conservation of the forest elephant’s habitat and save them from poachers.
It’s a classic David and Goliath story, except there are 90,000 Davids and they all have stings. On the African plains, the whistling-thorn acacia tree protects itself against the mightiest of savannah animals – elephants – by recruiting some of the tiniest – ants.
Elephants are strong enough to bulldoze entire trees and you might think that there can be no defence against such brute strength. But an elephant’s large size and tough hide afford little protection from a mass attack by tiny ants. These defenders can bite and sting the thinnest layers of skin, the eyes, and even the inside of the sensitive trunk. Jacob Goheen and Todd Palmer from Kenya’s Mpala Research Centre have found that ants are such a potent deterrent that their presence on a tree is enough to put off an elephant.
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Image: flickr / ebrelsford
When it comes to the relationship between bees and African elephants, size does not matter. The massive pachyderms are terrified of bees, which can painfully sting elephants around their eyes and inside their trunks. Baby elephants are the most vulnerable to bee stings, as their skin isn’t thick enough to ward off the insects. And researchers have now found that the elephants have developed a special strategy to help them avoid these bees that scare the bejesus out of them.
When an elephant takes note of a swarm of bees, it emits a distinct rumbling call. This bee alarm, which the scientists termed a “bee rumble,” helps draw the herd’s attention to the bees and allows them to run off unharmed, the researchers write in the journal PloS ONE. What’s more, they respond to an audio recording of the bee rumble as if it were the real thing, giving farmers a tool they could potentially use to fend off unwanted elephants.
Call it the green Nobels: Tonight in the San Francisco Opera House, six people will each receive a $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize for their efforts to protect sharks and elephants, to promote sustainable agriculture, and to fight for other green causes.
The awards go out by region. Here in North America, the winner was Michigan’s Lynn Henning, a self-described “redneck from Michigan” who investigated huge factory farms there. Henning, 52, began testing water herself to track discharges from the farms into local waters. She has been threatened and sued and had dead animals dumped on her porch. But her tireless detective work has contributed to the state closing one factory farm and fining others more than $400,000 for 1,077 violations since 2000 [Detroit Free Press]. As Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality suffered staff cuts, Henning’s determination kept regulators focused, former department head Steve Chester says.
South and Central America’s winner, Randall Arauz of Costa Rica, turned his attention to stopping the wasteful practice of shark finning. Arauz used a secretly recorded video to expose a ship illegally landing 30 tons of shark fins, which led to the death of an estimated 30,000 sharks. The video caused outrage in Costa Rica, which Arauz used to mobilize opposition [San Francisco Chronicle]. The Costa Rican government banned the practice, and its rules are now the model for those trying to work up international agreements against shark finning. (Worldwide restrictions were just shot down at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.)
The other winners:
In Europe, Malgorzata Gorska of Poland, who stopped a highway project that would have cut through a forest.
In Asia, Sereivathana Tuy of Cambodia, who taught farmers how to ward of wandering Asian elephants rather than kill them.
In Africa, Thuli Brilliance Makama of Swaziland. This environmental lawyer won a fight for local residents to have more say in environmental decisions by the government, especially those regarding the expansions of game parks that would force people off the land.
And for island nations, Cuban Humberto Rios Labrada, who pushed for more crop diversity and less pesticide use in Cuban agriculture.
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The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) continues through Thursday of this week, and the fallout continues today.
On Friday we reported that the bluefin tuna trade ban failed thanks in large part to Japanese diplomatic efforts, denying new protections to the endangered fish, but also noted that the question of opening the ivory trade had yet to see a vote. Over the weekend the convention voted down those ivory proposals put forth by Tanzania and Zambia, which would have allowed one-off sales of ivory from government stockpiles. The ivory trade was banned in 1989, but two sales have since been granted to nations showing effective conservation [BBC News]. However, fears that such sales encourage poaching led the meeting’s attendees to reject the new proposals.
While most conservation groups lobbied against the ivory proposal, another of their pet causes—offering more protection for corals against harvesters who sell them as jewelry—failed at CITES. The proposed restrictions would have stopped short of a trade ban but required countries to ensure better regulations and to ensure that stocks of the slow-growing corals, in the family coralliidae, were sustainably harvested [The New York Times]. The provision garnered 64 “yes” votes to 59 for “no,” but needed a two-thirds majority to pass.
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Image: flickr / wwarby
Sushi chefs in Japan are keeping a close eye on Doha, Qatar this week as delegates at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) debate the future of their beloved bluefin tuna. The fish, a delicacy in Japan that can sell for more than $100,000 apiece, is being overfished, and convention delegates aim to prevent the tuna from becoming extinct altogether. The proposal on the table: A complete ban on international trade of the fish to allow stocks to regenerate.
The bluefin tuna ban was proposed by Monaco, and the vote will probably come up next week. Japan has already dispatched a delegation to Doha with the message that Japan won’t comply with a total ban, and would instead prefer a fishing quota. But quotas have failed to help the depleted bluefin tuna stocks thus far. Japan last year pledged to help meet an accord to slash the total catch in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean by 40 percent, although environmental groups charge that such quotas are routinely exceeded [AFP].
Wildlife researchers have gained an intimate look an elephant family with a clever set of tools: GPS receivers on the animals to track their movements, and chemical analyses of their tail hairs to get detailed histories of their diet. The tail hairs of the family known as “the Royals,” led by three sisters called Victoria, Anastasia, and Cleopatra, show that the family roams Kenya’s savanna in search of resources, and sometimes gets out-competed. Lead researcher Thure Cerling described the Royals as “one of the dominant families, like the cheerleaders in high school. They camp out in the best places, where the food and water are best” [Deseret News]. But human settlers with cattle still win out over the Royals.
Your hair is what you eat. As it grows, hair incorporates carbon, hydrogen and other elements from food and water. So a single strand is like a core sample: chop it into short lengths, analyze each, and you have a record of dietary changes over time. That might not be of much use for humans — the technique can’t determine, for instance, if you switched from Cheerios to Froot Loops last month [The New York Times]. For the elephants, however, an analysis can show whether the animals are eating grass or shrubs and trees, and where their water comes from.