New: Book Report: Elephant Memories

This book is subtitled "thirteen years in the life of an elephant family". It's by Cynthia Moss, who watched the elephants at what became Amboseli National Park north of Mt Kilimanjaro. The book reflects years of observations, many of them of the same elephants. Each chapter starts out as a slice of life in a family of elephants. There's a compelling soap-opera feel as characters recur. Not all of the book is told from the elephants' point of view. That's good--not too much conjecture sneaks into the slice-of-life parts, but some sneaks in. It's good that we also get to hear about the scientists observing the elephants, the things they see.

For the information architects, an excerpt about how they chose names for elephants:

Numbers would have been simplest, but experience had taught us that numbers were hard to remember once we had several hundred. "Now is she F 121 for F 132?"... We tried to choose common English and European names for the elephants because they were the easiest for us to remember. I am very thankful that we did so because today [late 1980s], with over 500 elephants named, it would have been very difficult to remember any obscure names. To this day I cannot remember who is who among four young males with Russian names in the "V" family. Vladimir, Vostok, Vasily, and Vronsky are forever confused in my mind and I always have to look them up before writing them down. Also, and this is a key, I was not the one who named them--they were named by colleagues later in the study. Naming is a fascinating phenomenon and a surprisingly powerful process. Somehow by naming something one possesses it, almost creates it. At the same time one feels a closer relationship to that thing. I did most of the naming in the early days of the study, but Harvey named a few of the animals, and although he has had little to do with the study in the last ten years I still think of Tania, Filippa, Justine, and Jezebel as "Harvey's elephants." When Filippa died in 1982 it was Harvey I thought of and wanted to call.

For fans of punch cards, an example of them being used in the wild:

Part of Joyce's work involved bringing the recognition file [i.e., notes by which an observer can figure out whether the elephant bull they're looking at is Vladimir versus Vasily versus...] for the bulls up to date. She took more photographs and worked with the photographs I had not yet sorted. I had devised a different filing system for the bulls from that of the cows, using a punched-card method. A friend, Chris Hillman, had used these cards in his study of eland and had suggested it might work well with elephants. Each card had 102 numbered holes running around the entire outer edge. I made a key, assigning various recognition factors to the numbers, such as "large hole in left ear," or "right tusk higher than left." Three of the holes indicated three general size classes of the bulls&emdash;young, medium, and large. Each bull's characteristics were assessed and the holes for these characteristics cut through on his card. Thus, out in the field, when I came across a medium-sized bull with a large V out of his right ear and a broken left tusk but I did not know who he was, I could take the stack of cards, run a spike through the hole for "V nick right," and all the cards for bulls with that characteristic would fall out from the bottom of the pack. I could then take those cards that had fallen out, run the spike through the hole for "right broken tusk," and more cards would fall out. If the number of cards that dropped down was still many, I could run the spike through the hole for medium-sized bull. By that time only a few cards would probably fall out and I could just quickly look through them.

This system worked well for the bulls because a bull could be anywhere and with anyone and thus there were no clues as to who he was other than his ears, tusks, and size. The cow pictures were pasted onto plain cards and carried in alphabetical order by their family. If one member of the family could be recognized, that provided a huge clue and the pictures of that family could be taken out of the file to compare the elephants present. Eventually we put the cows onto punched cards as well, and new researches used the system when they were first learning the elephants. if you're writing elephant-recognition software, be aware: you'll want to use different signals depending on the elephant's gender. I love it when problems are more complicated than I thought--when I'm not trying to solve those problems.

The scientists see elephants in musth, and don't identify it at first. This seemed strange to me--I'd read a book from the 1930s whose author knew about musth. I mean, he didn't describe all of the symptoms--maybe because he was trying to spare the delicate sensibilities of his audience. But... folks obviously knew about it. Elephant handlers in Asia surely hadn't forgotten about musth. It turns out that folks knew that Asian elephant bulls went into musth. But they didn't recognize it in African elephants. One different thing about the African elephants--they tended to go into musth at, uhm, about the same time. At least, compared to Asian elephants, which were less synchronized. Thus, it was all too easy to think it was symptoms of some communicable disease spreading through the population.

A tale of controversy amongst the scientists:

When Iain Douglas-Hamilton did his study in Manyara he found that family units were remarkably stable in composition...

The results of an extensive radio-tracking study carried out in Zimbabwe by Rowan Martin called into question Iain's description of the degree of family-unit stability. Martin found that a female was rarely in a group of the same size or composition and that the most consistently stable association was between a female and her youngest offspring...

Fortunately, it turned out to be a case of no one being "wrong" but of elephants behaving differently under differing ecological conditions. In the early days of wildlife research many of the scientists were inflexible. If someone studied a species in one place and someone else got incompatible results in another place, it caused all sorts of anger and backbiting. It was almost as though each researcher thought his or her study animals displayed the Platonic ideal of the species' social behavior and thus anything that contradicted his or her description had to be wrong.

Ah, focusing on one detail and wrongly extrapolating to draw conclusions about the whole. She doesn't stoop to making a joke about the blind men and the elephant, so I guess I won't either.

This was a darned good book! I searched the internet for [cynthia moss] to see what the author was up to nowadays. It turns out that she's still associated with the Amboseli elephants--and even better, the folks watching those elephants have a blog! So I subscribed to the Amboseli Trust for Elephants blog, so I can catch up on the soap opera.

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Posted 2009-06-16