27.6.08

tiptoe through the scientists


Have just finished reading a book called The Elephant's Secret Sense by Caitlin O'Connell, an American scientist who came from a background of inquiry into seismic communication - in her case, the love songs of Hawaiian plant-hoppers. Many species of animal, it turns out, get in touch with each other by striking the ground or otherwise seismically. Fish amphibians lizards snakes crocodiles. Blind mole rats, the kangaroo rat, golden moles. Elephant seals too. Apache Indians would hold the hairs on the backs of their fingers up to the windows of their enemies' houses in order to feel the pressure waves from their heartbeats. All primates have specially adapted receptors in the hands, feet, lips and other places with the ability to detect vibrations. Elephants do it through their feet, particularly the forward tips. They have the ability to close their ears in order to mask sounds from the air so that the vibrations from the ground can travel up into their earbones. I had not realised before that our three bones of the middle ear, along with fur and mammary glands, are a defining characteristic of mammals. Elephants, like blue whales, have a huge cochlea. They have other attributes of marine animals, like so-called acoustic fat in their footpads, naval cavities and cheeks. Acoustic fat is good for transmitting vibrations. Close relatives of elephants include manatees, dugongs, the hyrax and the golden mole of the Namib Desert. Asian elephants, the genus Elphas, used to live in Africa alongside Loxodonta, the African variety. Until about 35,000 years ago. Namibia is where Caitlin did most of her research. She was seeking practical solutions to the problem of crop-stealing by elephants, which crash into subsistence farmers' gardens and eat the corn, as well as pursuing a more generalised and theoretical interest in communication per se. She loves her elephants and, despite a sometimes clumsy prose style, has written a good book. Some of its detail will remain with me: The animal poacher who had a big Panda sticker from the World Wildlife Fund on the gate of his compound. The poacher's brother, with his trunk full of dried human testicles to sell to witch doctors. He would sally forth every time he heard there had been a murder or a fight. Or he would send assistants out to get some. The ivory smuggling doctor. And her vivid descriptions of elephant behaviour in the wild - the Namibian herds she studied are the last truly migratory elephants left on earth. And yet scientists are weird. They fly around in small planes chasing the matriarchs of family groups so they can shoot them with tranquilliser darts and then attach radio transmitters to them while they are unconscious. Night after night they broadcast a recording of an alarm call made by a matriarch when lions threatened the babies of her group and observe how the elephants respond to this desperate warning. One young elephant called Miss Ellie became so upset she bit the ground, an action that is seen in the wild only under extreme agitation. Perhaps I'm missing something but the seemingly uncritical acceptance of the notion that the end justifies the means startles me. Also the apparent lack of awareness of the effect constant human intervention must have upon these wild animals. I guess you wouldn't do this kind of thing if you couldn't overcome certain scruples. But still. I enjoyed her book and admire her courage and her passion ... and how about this: if an elephant is calm it walks on its heels but if it is alarmed or nervous and feels the need for stealth, it tiptoes.

2 comments:

Kay said...

Have you seen the youtube that shows an elephant painting a picture? Amazing. I think scientists have a certain type of personality ... like you, somehow I couldn't just be a bystander; I'd feel culpable if because of me something was changed or altered to the detriment.
Fascinating stuff though and I guess we wouldn't know about it if we were all non-scientist types.
Irony strikes again.

Martin Edmond said...

Hi Kay, yes, I think you're right about the different mentality - you must have met a few when you were working with the albatross? Caitlin clearly thinks of the elephants she knows as people.