The emperor may look chilly but is he actually naked until scientifically proven otherwise?
Despite being very good at it I normally hate to repeat myself, but I think once or twice before in these pages I may have offered the opinion that, at a certain level in this 3,000 year old, anecdote laden field field of ours, science can be a way of mathematically showing what, to the rest of us, is self evident.
But then, being a lapsed scientist, specifically one who got annoyed when the maths didn't corroborate his theories (no matter which bizarre statistics machine I put them through) there is a certain argument that, well, I would say that, wouldn't I?
Still, I'm a great believer in those men & women in white coats, what might be self evident to you and I who have read books or spent our time sitting above an elephant camp watching elephants at work and at play is, at best, just a boring fan-or-fire side story that your indulgent friends wish you'd stop banging on about it after a few too many beers and, at worst, just you making stuff up to back up your argument to those with an opposite point to prove (and yep, they are out there).
So it is that when Scientists and Students offer to swing by camp they are seldom turned away, at the very least they'll keep the mahouts on their toes with their bizarre requests or amused, as in my first case, with their unwavering ability to stare at elephants for hours on end and, who knows, as in a couple of recent cases maybe they'll change the way we look after our elephants and provide ammunition to our mahouts to try & change things further.
Poon Larb, Lynchee's Mum, has suffered from stereotypic behaviour (repetitive behaviour in captive animals seen as a symptom of stress or boredom which, when practiced enough, eventually releases endorphins and effectively becomes so addictive - or comforting to anthropomorphalise - that even once the stress is taken away the animal continues to practice the behaviour - think leopards pacing the size of their old cage even when moved to a larger enclosure) since she arrived. She's bobbed her head to varying levels depending on the situation and in a way that is quite distressing to watch so when we learned, the other day, that we were to have three vet students from Chulalongkorn University to visit for a couple of weeks K. Prasop suggested we give them a project, get them to design an experiment to monitor, diagnose and hopefully cure Poon Larb's headbanging.
Now, we all had ideas of engineering marvels that would spit out treats when the correct combination of levers was pulled, or speakers playing the Hungry Man's Blues or Mozart, mirrors on the ceiling (pink champagne on ice?) etc. but the three young ladies from Chula are more recently through the schooling system (or perhaps just cleverer than us) and knew to start at the baseline.
Does Poon Larb show stereotypic behaviour? Yes - look at her? ...or No - not until we proven that she does scientifically, she may just bob her head a lot when you're looking?
So they watched her scientifically in a number of locations and under a number of conditions and here's what they found:
"Conclusion: Poonlarb’s knocking head behavior has related with living area, social behavior and people. At first, we compared between living area in elephant camp and wild, we found that the knocking head behavior when she was in the camp was much more that in the wild. When she stayed with other elephants in the camp the knocking head behavior is less than when she stayed alone. However when people came in, she also knocked her head and begged for food."
So far, so obvious, elephants like being in the jungle and prefer the company of other elephants (though this is slightly complicated by Poon Larb's habit - albeit four years ago when she'd just arrived having given birth on the streets of Pattaya - of royally laying into any other elephant in reach, a habit she seems to have grown out of) but it is great to scientifically know this, if someone is to present a counter argument we can provide figures (perhaps draw graphs even) to show the contrary, it is not just a crazy farang trying to impose his theories - believe me this is important in our softly, softly approach to moulding mahout attitudes.
But hang on, look at that last sentence, we also learn something new, all our other attempts to stop this had been through specialised feeding and human attention and our impassive watchers noticed that this made it worse, by all means feed as we normally would an elephant but it seems expectation of food or human attention was one of the main drivers. We've actually been making it worse by trying to make it better.
A simple scientific study changing the way we look after one particular elephant, replicable for the other elephants that show this, what is their trigger and how can we treat?
A million thanks to Khun Pattarat Asvasoontorn, Khun Peenicha Subchanakul & Khun Virada Prabharasuth and their supervisors at Chula' for letting us force them to stare at elephants.
A further case study can be found in the I-can't-talk-about-it-'cause-it-is-not-published-yet poo gazing research performed by Brittany King from the University of Edinburgh (with help, as always, from our very own Dr Cherry as well as Lizanne & Amanda Siqueira from the University of Sydney) whose work has already had an effect on the way we deal with our elephant's parasite loads and, once published, may be applicable to other camps and (in my view most important) may have applications in areas where there are wild elephants and (usually illegal) domestic grazing cattle.
Another recent study (though not done here, performed in Lampang) was a little more high tech & involved but 'discovered' something that Dhan Bahadur told me on my first day in at Tiger Tops, that elephants' legs bend like humans (though in fairness to the Bio-Mechanics who spent thousands of pounds and months of trial and error to set up the exciting looking equipment they discovered a whole lot more).
Besides, I've been repeating the elephant-human-leg fun fact to guests ever since, good to know it is actually true.
...& then, science can reach another level altogether, interesting studies can teach us things we never even thought of knowing or, at best, cause us to ask more questions and come up with ever more bizarre theories to ask the scientists to answer.
Josh Plotnik's research that proved that elephants can recognise themselves in the mirror caused many to ask "well what else are they capable of" we've read the books, we know the anecdotes, but how can we go about proving it is not just us seeing images of ourselves in their eyes - watch this space.
...and another piece that caught my eye recently, African elephants are able to control blood flow to certain parts of their bodies to regulate body heat, got me wondering, "you know we elephants dry quicker around cuts, bruises and abrasions than elsewhere, could it have something to do with this effect?", to which those in the know replied, "do they? I've never noticed that".
Well, iron my white coat & dust off my clip board, I feel a phone call to Chulalongkorn's elephant starers coming on.