Wild Things
Slate’s animal blog.

April 17 2015 12:54 PM

Elephants Really Never Forget

Excerpted from Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse by Caitlin O’Connell. Out now from the University of Chicago Press.

In terms of cognitive processing, not only do elephants have the largest absolute brain size among land mammals, they also have the largest temporal lobe relative to body size of any animal, including humans. The temporal lobe is that portion of the cerebral cortex devoted to communication, language, spatial memory, and cognition. Given the temporal lobe’s relative size in the elephant, there is every reason to suspect that elephants may be capable of far more complex cognition than is currently understood or documented.


In fact, elephant brains contain as many cortical neurons as human brains and have larger pyramidal neurons (specialized neurons thought to play a key role in cognitive functions) than do humans, suggesting that elephants might have learning and memory skills superior to ours. On top of this, von Economo neurons (or spindle cells)—believed to be involved in social awareness and the ability to make quick decisions and thought to exist only in humans, great apes, and four species of dolphin—were recently discovered in elephant brains.

Considering that this long-lived, highly intelligent mammal has a huge temporal lobe, highly sophisticated neural circuitry, and the largest brain capacity relative to any other mammal, the elephant is a natural focus of cognition experiments. Scientists have made progress on assessing elephants’ visual, vocal, and olfactory discrimination, but other cognitive experimental questions are easier to pose than to investigate. Experimenting with elephants poses elephantine challenges. Scientists rely on white mice, zebra fish, and fruit flies as study animals for a reason—they are cheap to raise and house. It is easy to create a controlled environment for such experiments and to run repeated trials to generate robust data sets. Comparative cognition work has been done on pigeons, pigs, dogs, and primates, but scale up to a study with elephants and it becomes much more difficult to find enough study subjects and run repeated trials.

Researchers have managed to conduct pioneering studies using zoo elephants in the areas of hearing, sensitivity to vibrations, and self-awareness. Yet these three individual studies were limited to a sample size of one. (The self-awareness test was performed with three elephants but only one produced usable data.)

Scientists have long considered the ability to recognize oneself in a mirror to be an index of high cognitive ability and one that is associated with humans, apes, and other highly social animals. To pass the mirror test, an animal has to respond to its own reflection in ways that make clear it sees itself in the mirror, as opposed to thinking it sees another animal of the same species. In the classic test, the experimenter surreptitiously applies a mark or sticker to the study subject, then presents the animal with a mirror. If on seeing its reflection the animal looks for the sticker or mark on its own body, it passes the test.

Two such experiments were done on Asian elephants to determine whether visible or both visible and concealed markings would be explored by elephants in front of a mirror. Neither of the two elephants in the first study reacted to their reflections. In the second study, one out of three subjects explored visible markings on her forehead, an indication she knew she was looking at a reflection of herself and not at another elephant. Although not as indisputable as the responses of great apes, the results were significant enough to warrant further investigation. Perhaps future experiments affording the opportunity for elephants to explore the mirror outside of circumscribed testing times, such as incorporating mirrors into elephant enclosures, would allow more individuals to respond, thereby leading to a stronger result. Such modifications may well demonstrate more definitively that elephants have a concept of self. In the meantime, these same researchers have shown the elephant’s ability to empathize with the misfortune of another and console the other after a traumatizing event (similar to what we often see with an older sister or aunt when a baby gets stuck in the mud or is accidentally separated from the group).

To explore elephant cognitive ability, a colleague and I devised a test for Donna, a trained African elephant subject at the Oakland Zoo that had participated in our studies on the role of vibrations in elephant communication a few years back. I also brought in some colleagues who knew more about this field than I did: Francis Steen and Dwight Read from the University of California–Los Angeles. Together with the staff at the Oakland Zoo, we hoped to assess elephant cognition in two phases. First, we needed to establish whether elephants could recognize a picture of an object (say, a banana) as a representation of an actual banana. Next, we needed to show whether elephants presented with a picture of that banana could use the symbol to accurately predict the location of an actual food reward— in this case, a real, live banana. Retrieving the food reward would require Donna to both recognize that the picture of a banana stood for a real banana and think ahead and make a plan in order to retrieve the fruit. Could she do it?

A central feature of higher-level cognitive ability to plan is the ability to stay focused on a goal or object when there are no reinforcing cues. For most animals, once an object is out of sight (or smell, or hearing) it is literally out of mind. Our own capacity to generate mental images of things we remember seeing may have evolved in response to continuing selective pressure. The ability to formulate, test, and carry out individual plans of action may have given our species an advantage.

When designing tests of cognitive ability, it’s important to differentiate between an ingrained magnetic or olfactory sense, such as what insects, turtles, and birds might use to navigate (path integration), and an actual cognitive use of memory, with referential images of migratory paths that passed a favorite fruit tree or seasonal water pan. The ability to treat a representation (a picture of a banana, for example) as if it were the real thing (an actual banana) is required to form a mental simulation, in which inferences are generated from a memory stimulated by the picture.

As I wheeled that first wheelbarrow of bananas toward Donna’s enclosure, I knew the process of investigating the cognitive capacity of elephants would be a long one. Testing their ability to recognize representations of objects would be an important first step in showing that elephants might be candidates for the kind of higher thinking called cognition. Showing recognition of objects alone wouldn’t make a strong case. But before I could plan out the whole series of experiments, I needed to see if this first one would work. And if so, I hoped to be in a position to pursue the question of elephant cognition with Donna, one wheelbarrow of bananas at a time, wherever it might take us.

Once Donna had acquired the skill of touching targets with her trunk in response to an experimental stimulus, we began the study with our first challenge. We attached photographs to the targets and trained Donna to touch the relevant photo on the left or right target when a piece of fruit, either a banana or an apple was presented in front of her. She was allowed to eat the fruit if she selected the correct photograph.

Many, many bananas later, we began to realize Donna, at least, was not the most enthusiastic study subject. This was unexpected because she had become an expert in touching targets in response to vibrational cues and actually appeared to enjoy the challenge. But when asked to make decisions about a photograph and engage in visual discrimination, Donna was clearly not paying much attention at all, although she was clearly enjoying her banana windfall.

Donna’s trainer, Colleen, had to wave her hand in front of Donna’s eyes constantly and snap her fingers to get her to pay attention and actually consider the photos. Donna would lift her heavy eyelids for a few moments, look up at the photos, and then plunk her banana- smeared trunk tip indiscriminately onto an image, breathing out heavily. Banana breath and banana slobber showered the photos as well as ourselves. We could tell that Donna was trying to discover the rules of the new game but was having trouble figuring out what we wanted her to do—to make a visual choice, either between a banana and a blank white image or between an image of a banana or an apple.


Every once in a while, we’d test Donna’s focus by swapping out her banana treat for an apple when she got an answer correct. Now that got her attention. She immediately opened her dozy eyes wide and looked around confused as to why the protocol of her getting fed a continuous stream of bananas had suddenly been switched to something else. Our testing did not progress nearly as quickly as we had hoped. Part of the problem may have been that elephants don’t use vision as their primary sensory input. They tend to smell or hear something first and only then train their sight on it. So we had a difficult time getting Donna to focus on our lovely photographs of plump and juicy fruit.

Eventually, though, Donna got the hang of this new challenge and was finally succeeding at selecting the correct photograph more often than would be due to chance. We decided she was ready to be trained for the next phase of the experiment.

In the second phase, the goal was to test Donna’s ability to plan by presenting her with a photograph of a hidden item, such as a pumpkin (a favorite treat). The photograph would incorporate cues of its location that were familiar to Donna, such as the 50-gallon drum that dangled in the bull yard or a favorite tree stump out in the exhibit enclosure. If Donna responded to the image of the pumpkin by searching for it, this would be evidence that she might be capable of using mental imagery to formulate plans.

The critical factor here would be if Donna’s search were initiated (and perhaps sustained) based on her mental image of a pumpkin rather than on visual or olfactory cues. That is, we would need to make sure to distinguish between, for example, a dog’s act of searching for the source of a smell and an elephant searching for a pumpkin based entirely on its depiction and not on being smelled or on a sighting of the actual object. And to rule out olfactory cues altogether, we’d hide a picture of the pumpkin, and only present a real pumpkin as a treat for finding the photograph. If Donna were truly able to evoke the image of the pumpkin on her own without any prompting either by photograph or by smell, then cognitive scientists out there would be satisfied that Donna had indeed engaged in cognitive thinking. That’s a lot of work, but it’s the only way to move from anecdote to experimental proof, even though anyone that knows elephants in the wild can imagine them moving north after the rains, heading on a path that they always take, knowing exactly where the marula trees are, and when the fruit would be ripe, all of which seems to demonstrate cognitive thinking.

As Donna sucked on her umpteenth banana, I contemplated a debate among cognitive psychologists over the definition of cognition in general and then, specifically, in relation to whether bees were capable of cognitive processing, as, for example, in the interpretation of the famous waggle dance (a figure-eight dance used as a form of communication by honeybees). The cognition community was turned upside down by the question of whether individual bees, in all of their mental processing ability, could be considered to have cognition. The flurry of discussion came when skepticism was voiced that creatures without backbones were capable of possessing this capacity to any degree. And at the same time, there were cognitive scientists who supported the idea that robots had cognitive ability. The field obviously needed a definition of cognition that could apply as well to people and primates and dolphins as it could to robots and bees and elephants.

Hence the debate continued over an official definition of the term “cognition” and the concept of reference—whether the representation of a real object could interact internally with another representation of reality. In other words, whether viewing the image of an object could stimulate a mental image of the same object—that is, whether the picture of a banana would cause Donna to imagine a real banana. The results didn’t give us confidence that we were going to get definitive answers quickly, but since Donna connected the act of touching the image of a banana with a banana reward at a rate slightly higher than chance, this suggested she might actually be thinking and not just enjoying the taste of bananas.

Reprinted with permission from Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse by Caitlin O’Connell, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2015 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

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April 14 2015 3:05 PM

Mountain Lion P-22, Paparazzi Victim

A male mountain lion lives in Griffith Park, an oasis of semi-natural habitat within Los Angeles. The big cat, dubbed P-22, has gotten a certain amount of fame; he has even graced the cover of National Geographic. Sometime Monday, P-22 decided to go hang out in the crawl space under a house in Los Feliz, a Los Angeles neighborhood bordering the park.

The story of P-22 is the story of survival. Griffith Park is surrounded by concrete and swimming pools. The mountain lion somehow managed to cross two of the nation’s busiest freeways—a total of 16 lanes of traffic—to safely land in the park. At least three others have died trying.


He has mostly managed to stay away from the prying eyes of people for the three years or so that he’s made the park his home. Then, last March, camera trap photos revealed that he was suffering from mange, likely because he ate a small mammal that had eaten rat poison. Researchers provided medical care, and by May of 2014, new camera trap photos indicated that he seemed to be recovering.

Mountain lion P-22 photographed by a camera trap.

Courtesy of Griffith Park Connectivity Study

Now he’s managed to get himself into a sticky situation yet again.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Monday afternoon, a pair of workers installing a security system on the house came face to face with a very big cat. They informed the homeowners, who called the city, which then informed the state of California.

By mid-day, several reporters were on the scene along with a film crew from NBC. They were there to report on the efforts by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and Los Angeles Animal Services to coax the cougar out of the crawl space and back into Griffith Park.

Once word got out that the animal holed up under the house was indeed the famous mountain lion, more and more news trucks and reporters showed up, all eager to catch a glimpse of the Los Angeles mascot. Helicopters flew overhead. Wildlife officials agreed that all the commotion would make it unlikely for the cat to leave on its own, so they blocked its exit and decided to wait until night fell.

Once it became dark, they reopened the entrance to the crawl space. They expected the cat to run into the wooded area adjacent to the house and eventually find his way back to the park. “It’ll be like a fur-covered rocket,” one official told reporters.

I know that’s what he said because I could hear it. NBC was livestreaming footage of the scene online, and everything could be heard, including inane commentary from some of the reporters (“Do you think he looks like this emoji?”) on site who seemed not to remember that the cameras were on.

And then the news media became part of the story itself. Instead of asking the camera crew and the reporters to move away—or at least to keep their noise down and lights off—the wildlife officials monitoring the situation allowed NBC to keep its cameras rolling and its lights shining, and all the reporters (from NBC and elsewhere) loudly chattering away just outside of the crawl space. Not a pleasant scene for a stressed-out cat.

What quickly became apparent was that NBC was running the show. It was as if the entire operation was intended to create compelling television rather than to maximize the welfare of the animal. One strategy to provoke the cat’s exit was to poke it with a long pole—but not before the camera operator could attach a GoPro to it. Then came the tennis ball launcher. (“His ears are perked up but he’s not doing anything.”) And then the beanbag bullets, which were also ineffective.

For anyone with a background in wildlife and animal behavior (and based on Twitter and Facebook comments, even for those without), it was clear that the cat was going to stay exactly where it was.

I had to wonder whether the wildlife officials were using increasingly aversive methods mainly because sit-and-wait doesn’t make for good TV. In the end, that’s what wildlife officials finally agreed to do, stopping their increasingly futile efforts just short of tranquilizing the cat. “He’s not hurting anyone in there, at some point he’s going to come out,” said homeowner Jason Archinaco.

“I showed up to the scene to see if I could be of service to the biologists,” said Miguel Ordeñana, a mammal researcher at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles who discovered the first photo of P-22 on a Griffith Park camera trap. “I was appalled at how the media was managed.”

Most upsetting, he told me, was the general attitude on the balcony just outside the crawl space. “At one point, [they were] even joking about handing the tennis ball launcher to the homeowner to give it a try. Even if the right strategy was to coax him out, they shouldn’t be doing anything other than whispering and allowing only the few necessary trained professionals near the crawl space viewing area.”

At 9:25 Tuesday morning, the homeowner tweeted confirmation that National Park Service researchers established using radio telemetry that P-22 had left the house, on his own, sometime overnight. Which surprises nobody.

In a city like Los Angeles, with its matrix of urban and wild landscapes, conflicts between humans and wildlife are inevitable. What is instead surprising is just how rare those interactions are. P-22 has survived more than three years in heavily used Griffith Park and would likely have gone undetected for a long time if not for the camera trap system set up by researchers. Indeed, what is unusual is not necessarily that the cat spent the day under a house, but that anybody even noticed. As a University of California Santa Cruz mountain lion researcher told a reporter, “they’re professionally secretive; they hide all the time.”

Wild animals in big cities already face so many human threats: roads, cars, pollution, habitat loss, climate change. Must we now add the news media to that list?

In the best cases, the media can help people connect with nature in a positive way, helping them understand and appreciate it. Monday night, journalists acted as paparazzi, participating instead in the harassment and exploitation of a distressed animal. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife ought to review yesterday’s footage and develop new policies that make ensuring animal welfare their top priority, rather than facilitating cheap entertainment.

The better way to see wildlife: through a camera-trap image. Mountain lion P-19, a female, lives in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Courtesy of Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area via Facebook

April 3 2015 12:22 PM

Evolution’s Oddest Eggs

Whatever creative egg-decorating plans you may have for Easter, I guarantee birds already have it beat. Over the course of 150 million years or so of evolution, birds have adapted to fill just about every ecological niche on the planet, and in the process they’ve developed some surprising strategies for reproduction. Here are five of nature’s most interesting, innovative, and bizarre bird eggs.

1. Common murres are seabirds (related to puffins) that lay their eggs on bare rock on narrow ledges on the sides of cliffs. You’d think the eggs would roll off the edge and be lost or smashed every time mom or dad accidentally bumped into them. To solve this problem, murre eggs are exceptionally pointy so that if one gets jostled, it doesn’t roll away anywhere—it just wobbles around in a circle. They’re also marked with distinctive patterns of spots and splotches, which help murre parents pick out their own eggs from everyone else’s in their dense nesting colonies.

A common murre colony.

Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


2. Kiwis lay the biggest eggs in relation to body size of any bird—each egg is around 20 percent of the mother’s total body weight. It takes a female kiwi a month to produce a single egg, and in the final days the developing egg takes up so much space inside her body that she can’t even eat. The advantage is that kiwi chicks don’t require much parental care. By the time they’ve used up all the nutrition stored in their yolk sacs, newly hatched chicks are already fully feathered and ready to go.

3. Common cuckoos are “nest parasites,” meaning they can’t be bothered to build their own nests, instead sneaking their eggs into the nests of other birds. They’ve been documented to exploit more than 100 other bird species as “hosts.” Different lineages of cuckoos have even specialized on specific host birds, laying eggs whose appearance closely matches those of their targets, making it more difficult for parasitized parent birds to realize they are incubating and protecting foreign eggs and, after they hatch, feeding intruder cuckoo chicks. Over time, host parents have gotten better and better at recognizing impostor cuckoo eggs in their nests, prompting cuckoos to lay more convincing fakes, in a classic evolutionary arms race.

4. Hoopoes … well, this one is kind of gross. Hoopoes are gorgeous Eurasian birds with a distinctive crown and the delightful scientific name Upupa epops. They paint their eggs with smelly brown fluid from a gland near their rear ends. Birds normally use the oils secreted by the uropygial gland to preen their feathers, but hoopoes are unique in that their uropygial secretions are full of bacteria. They smear the surfaces of their eggs with this microbial goo, and researchers have found that this actually reduces the amount of harmful bacteria inside the eggs, with the friendly uropygial bacteria acting as a sort of shield.

5. Tinamous have eggs worthy of even the choosiest Easter bunny, with shells in bright, shimmering colors that can appear to change as you look at them. The shy, turkey-size South American birds are the only animal known to lay eggs that are iridescent. The cuticle, or outermost layer, of a tinamou egg has special characteristics at the nanostructural level that affect how it reflects light. This “structural coloration” plus pigment produces colorful, glossy eggshells. (Full disclosure: I’m acquainted with one of the scientists who worked on the iridescent eggs research.) Why secretive tinamous need such Technicolor eggs remains a mystery.

If you need a little inspiration for last-minute Easter decorating, hopefully the world’s pointiest, bulkiest, sneakiest, smelliest, and shiniest eggs will give you some ideas. (Although it would probably be best not to emulate the hoopoe.) Next time you crack an egg of the chicken variety, pause for a moment to remember its wild cousins and marvel at how weird nature can be.

Murre eggs harvested in Alaska in 1985.

Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

April 1 2015 12:28 PM

Rules for the Black Birdwatcher

I’m an ornithologist and wildlife ecology professor at Clemson University. I’ve been a birder since the second grade. Birds are my vehicle for appreciating nature and the vital ecological, psychological, and spiritual connections that intersect between feathers, flight, wonder, and wings. In my fascination and worship of all things avian, I’m joined by millions who appreciate the importance that birds play in all our lives. I list a multitude of birders among my closest friends and kindred spirits. Those fellow “bird nerds” make my life richer and contribute to social aspects of birding that just make it a damn fun thing to do!

“Nine Rules for the Black Birdwatcher” is a piece I originally wrote for Orion magazine, now adapted into the video above. It’s my satirical take on some of the challenges I’ve faced as a birder who just happens to be a relative rarity among the largely white flock. My hope is that the Nine Rules somehow move us into conversations about how to make the environment and conservation more colorful both in composition and consideration.


Video produced by Ari Daniel. Videography by Amanda Kowalski. A BirdNote Production.

March 24 2015 12:32 PM

The Infected Elephant in the Room

Racked with tuberculosis, the patient lost 1,400 pounds in two weeks. That’s excessive weight loss even if you’re an elephant. For Packy, a senior citizen at the Oregon Zoo, the situation was critical. Veterinarians at the zoo started the pachyderm on an 18-month course of the same daily antibiotics that millions of people around the world who suffer from the bacterial infection take. The United States is currently in the midst of an elephant tuberculosis epidemic. There have been more than 60 confirmed cases of tuberculosis in U.S. elephants—in a population of only 446. In June, a third elephant was diagnosed with tuberculosis in the Oregon Zoo, and this past November an infected elephant died in a California refuge.

The disease poses risks not just for the large land mammals but also for us. While most infectious diseases are not easily passed between species, tuberculosis is an exception. The bacteria can be transmitted by close contact or by droplets containing bacteria that float through the air after a sneeze or cough. Our current animal practices are driving the present epidemic.


Tuberculosis, like its vintage companions pertussis, measles, and mumps, was once all but gone from the United States. It re-emerged in the 1980s, a comeback corresponding to increased injection drug use and the HIV epidemic. After reaching a peak in 1992, TB rates have been falling for two decades in North America. Elephants are the exception. The elephant reservoir of the disease represents a stronghold of the bacteria, a persistent reminder that we can’t eradicate this stubborn killer.

Tuberculosis is thought to have killed more people than any other disease—more than the plague, leprosy, cancer, or HIV. It’s estimated that one-third of the world’s population is infected with the bacteria. The disease kills 1.5 million people every year. While the disease, then known as consumption, was running rampant through Paris in the 19th century, a French military doctor, Jean-Antoine Villemin, established that the disease could be passed between humans and cattle. It was a remarkable realization, especially considering that the bacteria responsible for the disease had yet to be discovered.

Tuberculosis is caused by a curious group of bacteria called Mycobacteria. The microorganisms have a slick, waxy coat, allowing them to float in the air like a hazardous balloon. These tiny balloons are inhaled and make their way to the lungs. The bacteria thrive in the moist, oxygen-rich environment. After a few weeks, a person runs out of immune defenses and the bacteria grow unimpeded in the empty spaces within the lungs. The bacteria are particularly good at getting out again. The disease produces dry, heaving coughs that fling the tiny invaders out of the body. Hours after an infected person has left a room, the bacteria hang on, waiting for their chance to infect someone else, their waxy coats allowing them to bob in the air.

The treatment for TB is a 6- to 9-month course of antibiotics. Unfortunately, the drugs we have are beginning to falter. The same waxy coat that helps the bacteria fly through the air also helps the microorganisms develop resistance. Multi-drug resistance to our current antibiotics is on the rise throughout much of the world. The therapy also isn’t cheap. The cost runs typically $2,000 per patient. For an elephant, the price tag rises to $50,000.

 On April 13, 1796, the first elephant to grace North America since the ice ages arrived by boat in New York City. For two bits, onlookers could gaze upon the majestic beast. The animal was sold to Hackaliah Bailey, a farmer in Somers, New York, and the first American circus was born. No one could predict that one day a human disease would threaten the very existence of elephants on the continent.

It's bad enough to be a circus elephant even if you're not suffering from TB.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

The first hint that TB might be a serious problem for elephants in North America came in 1996, when four Asian elephants owned by the Hawthorn Circus Corporation became ill. Three of the four elephants succumbed to the infection, and 11 keepers were found to harbor the bacteria, one of whom had an active infection. The elephants had been spread out around the country, leased to different circuses and zoos. Over the next decade, infected elephants began popping up all over the United States. As TB swelled in elephants, the humans in contact with them also found themselves at increased risk. In 2000, at the Los Angeles Zoo, 55 keepers tested positive, their bacteria a genetic match to the infected animal they handled—strongly implying, but not proving, that the keepers had acquired the infection from an elephant. When the USDA investigated, it found patient zero: an 11-year-old Asian elephant who died in 1981 at an animal facility in Richmond, Illinois. Aware that it would be impossible to track all 22 members of this index herd, by now spread far across the country, the federal government instead took immediate action. (The USDA would later learn that 41 percent of the animals from the Richmond facility were positive for TB.)

The USDA established new safety guidelines for TB testing in elephants and issued a temporary moratorium on elephant travel. At the same time, accusations over the elephant epidemic began to fly. In a 1998 court case, a private investigator working for Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, testified that, “I was told by [the circus veterinarian] … that about half of the elephants in each of the shows had tuberculosis, and that the tuberculosis was an easily transmitted disease to individuals, to human beings.” These claims have never been substantiated but may have spurred the government agency to ensure regular TB testing. USDA guidelines dictate that once a year, elephants in the United States should have their trunks washed out with saline to get a sample to be analyzed. Blood antibody tests are also performed. But even these monitoring measures are not without flaws. The procedure itself is challenging, and the culturing the bacteria from these specimens has not proven reliable. Consequently, elephant managers don’t always know which animals are contagious, and the epidemic is worsening. Treating an elephant for TB has proven complex, with multiple cases of resistance to first-line human therapies, as well as difficulty in administering the drugs themselves and controlling their toxicity.

The problem started, strangely enough, with the Endangered Species Act, which led to restrictions on elephant imports into the United States. In response, the Disney Corporation, Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, and Busch Gardens developed large elephant breeding facilities. Elephants are difficult to breed in captivity. Females have low rates of fertility, and there are limited numbers of mature males. The population in the United States has never been self-sustaining. Michael Fouraker, executive director of the Fort Worth Zoo, emphasizes the problem by saying: “Current breeding rates suggest that in 45 years, only 50 female elephants may populate zoos … without successful elephant births in the coming years, the North American Asian elephant population will face near-extinction.” With the pressure on, corporations established the first artificial insemination program for elephants. They also began breeding-loan programs in which zoo and circus animals were shipped all over the country. With animals moving far and wide, the stage was set for a disease outbreak.

In 2009, the first elephant-to-human transmission of TB was confirmed. In an outbreak in Tennessee, the bacteria were transmitted from a single elephant to nine keepers at an animal refuge. There is still much we don’t know about transmission between our species. In the Tennessee outbreak, some employees who were not in close contact with the infected animal still became infected. We can’t be sure how, possibly simply by sharing the same air.

TB isn’t a disease that’s typically transmitted from animals to humans. It usually happens the other way. Humans are the natural habitat for Mycobacterium tuberculosis. When animals become infected, it’s called “reverse zoonosis.” Cows, pigs, birds, meerkats, mongooses, and monkeys have all succumbed to the human bacteria. While a related bacterial species, Mycobacteria bovis, has been transmitted from cows to humans, usually by unpasteurized milk, elephants stand alone as the only recently documented cases of zoonotic transmission of M. tuberculosis.

This past April, Packy celebrated his 52nd birthday with a 40-pound cake. The elephant-friendly dessert was made with whole-wheat flour, fruits and vegetables, and five pounds of butter. Despite the celebration, Packy struggles with his infection. He has trouble taking his medication, suffering from a range of side effects and drug sensitivity. He’s not alone; millions of people have difficulty taking the therapy. The challenges mount in senior citizens like Packy, who is the oldest living North American elephant raised in captivity. In 1962 his birth caused a stir, as he was the first elephant born on the continent in 44 years. The newborn elephant made global headlines and was featured in an 11-page spread in Life magazine. Now he’s making headlines again, as four of the eleven people closest to him have tested positive for TB. He lives with his son Rama, also infected with TB, but who seems to be responding to medication. This one pachyderm family in Oregon highlights our vulnerability, both to the deepening tuberculosis crisis and to zoonotic outbreaks. How we respond is an important indicator of our and their future susceptibility to infectious disease.

March 13 2015 10:06 AM

The Airborne Acrobatics of Praying Mantises

Before they grow wings, young praying mantises use a different trick to move through the air, and they do so with amazing precision. Professor Malcom Burrows and his colleague Dr. Gregory Sutton shot high-speed film of 58 mantises performing 381 jumps and found the insects could execute a series of intricate, calculated movements that helped them complete jumps with incredible accuracy and speed.

Those steps, shown in the video above, have led the researchers to their next big question: Do mantises predict the movements necessary for a successful landing prior to takeoff, or are they able to make lightning-fast corrections while airborne?


"We now have a good understanding of the physics and biomechanics of the precise aerial acrobatics," said Sutton. "But because the movements are so quick, we need to understand the role the brain is playing in their control once the movements are underway."

March 11 2015 3:29 PM

Incredible Shrinking Ants

On the surface, superheroes and scientists don’t have a lot in common, but there are more parallels than you might think. In the Marvel universe, mad genius Hank Pym discovered how to shrink himself down to the size of an ant. In real life, researchers have figured out how to shrink actual ants. Unlike Pym, who used his size-changing powers to fight crime as Ant-Man, these scientists are using theirs to expose how genes are expressed.

We’ve long known that genes influence traits like size; taller parents tend to have taller children. But genes aren’t everything; they interact with environmental factors, and scientists’ understanding of what counts as the “environment” and how it contributes to gene expression has been murky at best. For instance, all sorts of outside factors affect how genes for size are expressed over our lifetimes: illnesses, the amount of sleep we get, what we ate as kids, what we eat now, and even what our mothers ate while we were in the womb. The new research with ants, published Wednesday in Nature Communications, has homed in on a mechanism by which the environment can influence genes, called DNA methylation.


DNA methylation starts in utero, and it’s an important step in embryonic development. During methylation, molecules that determine whether, where, and when certain genes will function are added to DNA. Abnormal methylation can lead to diseases like cancer and lupus.

Most methylation studies have focused on how the process can send an embryo down one developmental path or another—for instance, whether a larval honeybee becomes a lowly worker or a queen bee. In this new study, scientists showed that methylation can cause a continuum of differences. The researchers, from McGill and Stanford, noticed that carpenter-ant size was related to the amount of methylation of a size-regulating gene called Efgr, so they gave ants drugs to manipulate Efgr methylation. They found that ants with increased Efgr methylation grew bigger, while ants with decreased methylation were smaller. In fact, some ants they bred were of comic-book proportions: They were smaller than ants you’d find in the wild.

These studies offer a glimpse into how to influence gene expression. “You’re born and you die with the same genes, and that sometimes leads people to take a deterministic view: Why bother going on a diet if I was born with these genes?” lead author Sebastian Alvarado told me. These studies “give more credit to the role of environment.”

For Alvarado, these results also fulfilled a lifelong dream: using science to explain fiction. A long-time comic-book aficionado, Alvarado was excited to discover a possible real-world explanation for the Marvel universe character Ant-Man. One of the first things he did after the team made its discovery was call up Marvel Studios executive producer Kevin Feige to share the news. “His secretary hung up on me,” says Alvarado. “But she was probably just doing her job.” Here’s hoping that Alvarado’s next project sheds light on Wolverine’s healing powers.

March 3 2015 8:02 AM

It’s Amazing, It’s Absurd, and It’s Real

Hey everyone, here’s something I bet you didn’t think you’d see this week: a weasel riding on the back of a flying woodpecker! No, they’re not engaging in The Neverending Story cosplay. This incredible image, taken in Hornchurch Country Park in East London, captures the weasel in the middle of a poorly thought out attack.

The photographer, Martin Le-May, told me it began when he heard distress calls from the bird, a European green woodpecker, and turned to see it jumping up and down on the ground. These woodpeckers commonly feed on ground-dwelling ants, and the weasel must have initiated a sneak attack. Birds do what birds do, however, and once the bird righted itself it was airborne—but not free. Though weasels are known for their courage and brazenness, I’m not sure this one was prepared for this contingency. Le-May said the pair got about 10 feet off the ground before landing again, where the bird managed to free itself of the weasel and fly off, both creatures apparently unharmed. (See more photos of the encounter, below.)


All due credit to Martin Le-May for his quick shutter finger, and for reminding us that crazy nature is all around us.


Courtesy of Martin Le-May


Courtesy of Martin Le-May


Courtesy of Martin Le-May

Feb. 27 2015 1:38 PM

Llama Llove

Two llamas won the Internet this week. North American Air Defense tweeted about llamas. Sen. John McCain tweeted about llamas. Twitter exploded with more than 250,000 llama tweets. Llamas are hot.

Except when they are not. Despite Thursday’s hapless performance by the scores of people who couldn’t manage to capture two runaway llamas, it turns out that people are better at catching llamas than breeding them. Now that black llama and white llama are Internet celebrities, there may be a big demand for their genetic progeny. Fulfilling orders will not be easy.


Serious llama breeders, like most livestock breeders, prefer to use artificial insemination, but this is even more difficult for llamas than it is for other animals.

The first problem is that the llama reproductive cycle is not like our own. Humans and dogs and cows and many other animals ovulate in predictable cycles. Eggs are released whether or not sperm are nearby to fertilize them. But llamas are “induced ovulators.” This means that female llamas release an egg only after copulation. As one might imagine, this can make artificial insemination tricky.

Male llamas aren’t helping. Llama semen is thick and syrupy, with lethargic sperm at low concentrations. The male also doesn’t produce much volume—llamas are called, embarrassingly, “dribble ejaculators.” Mating tends to last a long time (up to an hour). And the sperm-gathering receptacle has to be kept at a realistic temperature.

Some llama farmers are content to let their animals fraternize naturally, but those devoted to llama breeding need to be able to analyze, freeze, ship, sell, and tinker with the starting material. Previous attempts at semen collection in llamas have included condoms, intravaginal sacs, vaginal sponges, electroejaculation, and fistulation of the penile urethra. There is some debate about the merits of the anesthesia-aided electroejaculation (in which electrodes placed in the animal’s rectum provide low-voltage pulses to stimulate ejaculation). But at least for now, the llama semen collection star is the artificial vagina. 

The artificial llama vagina looks eerily similar to a hollow rubber human penis. It comes with a heating pad or water bottle to simulate the temperature of a real llama vagina and, often, a cuddly, life-size, stuffed-animal female llama (or female llama rear end). Sometimes the male is allowed to mount a real female and the semen is “redirected” into an artificial vagina held nearby as he mounts her.

During mating, the male llama vocalizes with what people call an “orgling” sound. I have never heard it, but I expect it sounds both adorable and disturbing. Unlike horses, which mount in a standing-up position, llamas copulate sitting down. Honestly, it looks much more relaxing.

There are several versions of the llama artificial vagina to choose from. You can order from a catalog if you like, or follow step-by-step DIY instructions. Semen collection has come a long way from the “long, black, used water hose confiscated from a deceased Ford” that pioneer Harold Hill described in a story about collecting semen from bulls in 1949.

In fact there is a bustling field of animal artificial insemination, with researchers, breeders, and professional collectors, and an industry to cater to their needs—though some still make their own vaginas from parts bought at home improvement stores. There are artificial vaginas for just about every animal anyone cares to breed, from tiny little contraptions for rabbits to huge hoses for horses. I found one artificial vagina for sale with attachment threads designed to be fitted to a baby bottle.

The fact that there is a semen collection industry makes sense, because we have been doing this for a long, long time.

According to legend, the first animal artificial insemination was performed by an Arab chieftain who stole semen from the horse of an enemy tribe. The first successful artificial insemination in dogs was recorded in 1784. In the 1880s a scientist documented a single human pregnancy after 55 attempts at artificial insemination, but the literature notes that his failures could have resulted from his erroneous belief that ovulation occurred during menstruation.

Yes, we have been interfering with breeding for centuries, but only recently have we enjoyed real success with llamas. Gathering the semen is difficult. Storing it is problematic. We did not know how to thin it out enough to be injectable. Inducing ovulation is tricky, and so is delivery of the semen goods.

The website of Taylor Llamas, a farm in Montana, details an expensive and painstaking experiment in llama embryo transfer, which, they say, finally produced healthy offspring in 1994. But it seems that few others have enjoyed success.

Research reported in the past year or so has detailed advances in cooling and storing semen, as well as diluting and extending it, both major hurdles that have plagued llama breeders. And within the past couple of months, two publications—one on llamas and alpacas, and one on mice (which are spontaneous ovulators, like humans)—have shown that substances in semen work to control female reproductive responses, and even may affect the health of offspring.

It is a heady time in llama reproduction. It’s amazing that for all we know, we still do not understand the role of seminal fluid, even our own, or how to genetically engineer a llama. But then again, a couple of llamas on the loose can evade our technologically advanced law enforcement, so maybe I am giving us a little too much credit.

Feb. 20 2015 4:33 PM

Red Pandas Have Way More Fun In The Snow Than You Do

Take note, everyone. This is how you handle an unexpected influx of snow. You embrace it. You frolic in it. You roll around in it. You walk on your hind legs, hands held up in the air, a defiant look of joy plastered on your face. You treat it not as the wholly inconvenient white misery that it logically is, but as the glorious natural playground that it could potentially be.

Also, as the video above shows, it helps to be a red panda. Or, in the absence of actually being a red panda, it helps to have one on hand, as its sheer adorableness will help you temporarily forget the unceasing crush of winter’s cold embrace. Because, fact: No one has more fun than red pandas, blizzards be damned.


Thank you, Cincinnati Zoo, for reminding us all to embrace that cat-bear joie de vivre during these difficult, frigid times.