The incredible, bendable, twistable, expandable elephant trunk - Chase LaDue & Bruce A. Schulte
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African elephants comprise two different species: the African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). The elephants in this lesson were savanna elephants. Forest elephants tend to be smaller, and they live in pockets of forested habitat of central Africa; savanna elephants live in more open landscapes in eastern and southern Africa. Once ranging across most of the continent, both of these species are threatened by human development and illegal hunting, and scientists around the world are trying to understand more about elephant biology to contribute to conservation efforts. For example, ivory poaching may severely disrupt the tight-knit social structures of elephant groups, yielding devastating, long-lasting consequences. Learn more about the risks facing African elephants, and observe this map that shows where African elephants are increasing and decreasing across the continent.
Applications to conservation
The growing field of conservation behavior combines the biological study of animal behavior with the value-laden science of conservation. A conservation behavior approach has been used to understand how animals respond to changing environments to develop sustainable resource and management strategies for threatened species and landscapes. This information is crucial, as humans are changing the environment at a rapid pace and in ways that are unprecedented, and so getting an animal’s perspective can generate creative solutions to challenging conservation problems. For example, human–elephant conflict (HEC) occurs in many parts of Africa and Asia when humans and elephants struggle for access to share resources like food or water. Many attempts by farmers in these areas have been thwarted by the ability of elephants to habituate to deterrents, or because traditional deterrents aren’t effective for large animals like elephants. At one field site in Kenya, researchers are studying how elephants respond to different fence types to find HEC solutions that are sustainable and effective at preventing elephants from raiding crops in nearby farms.
Understanding the secret senses of animals
Many animals perceive the world and communicate with each other well outside the range of human senses, which means that biologists sometimes get creative to study what animals see, hear, taste, and smell.
Elephant vision isn’t particularly well-developed, but other animals use their eyesight in astounding ways. Many birds can see into the ultraviolet spectrum, enhancing the coloration we can see with our own eyes. Various species of birds of prey have specialized adaptations in their eyes that allow them greater field of vision over longer distances. And there are some animals don’t see at all! Specialized cameras that can record images in the ultraviolet range or at long distances allow researchers to better understand how these birds see the world. Several species of cave-dwelling fish have lost their eyes completely because they don’t need it in the dark areas where they live.
Elephants can hear well below frequencies that humans can, at frequencies in the infrasonic range. This infrasound allows their calls to travel over long distances, and we are discovering that more and more animals also use similar calls. But it also means that researchers studying infrasonic calls must have specific recording equipment to understand what these calls mean and how they are produced. Some researchers even use microphone arrays to visualize how various elephant calls are produced!
Finally, the chemical world of taste and smell is largely foreign to humans; we probably just don’t depend on these senses as much (although the search for human pheromones is active!). However, other animals—especially other mammals—use chemicals in virtually every aspect of their lives. This includes locating prey and avoiding predators, navigating complex environments over long distances, identifying individuals in a group, and even finding the perfect mate. Studying these odors has traditionally required large, expensive equipment, but some scientists are working to develop portable devices that can detect tastes and smells more quickly and accurately. We’ll finally be able to get a better idea of what animals have been communicating about right under our noses!
Engineers have taken inspiration from nature to develop sustainable, multifunctional structures, ranging from architecture to robotics. The elephant trunk is an example of a muscular hydrostat, and because of its inherent flexibility, it has interested engineers that seek to develop robots that can traverse and sense complicated environments while performing delicate tasks. Learning more about the muscular structure and sensing capabilities of elephant trunks will help to further develop these efforts. Learn more about bioinspired engineering and soft robotics.
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