Click the image above for the story called “Forest Elephant Chronicles” in this month’s American Scientist, about new technology for understanding elephant behavior in the wild:
…What inspired your team to try thermal imaging?
Acoustic monitoring has allowed us to study elephant behavior, without bias, over 24-hour cycles. Their activity cycle is nearly equally distributed day and night, but they prefer to enter forest clearings at night. This is where we can observe the elephants directly. We suspect that different types of interactions occur at night because the types of calls differ then. But we have only the beginnings of an understanding of what the acoustic signals mean. We need to investigate this with visual observation. Also, important behaviors may not have identifying sounds associated with them, and we need to know what these are….
…Did filming at night produce any surprises?
One of the biggest surprises was the beauty. You see dozens of elusive elephants scattered like hot coals across a cool plain that is surrounded by forest trees radiating the heat they absorbed during the day. Scientifically it was startling to see so much variation in individuals’ external body temperatures. Some disparity may be due to unknown differences in recent physical activity, but perhaps it also can tell us something about health. Interactions among their own species and with other species on the blackest of nights, when the elephants could not see, gave us insights into how they negotiate their environment using only their hearing and olfactory senses. And there appeared to be much more sexual behavior going on at night compared to the day, which we did not expect…