Dr. Stephanie Schuttler is a mammalogist with strong interests in animal behavior, molecular, and movement ecology, especially applied research that impacts the conservation of threatened and endangered species. She is working with North Carolina teachers under the Students Discover program to implement eMammal, a citizen science camera-trapping program, into the curriculum of middle school classrooms and will use the student-collected data to study urban mammals. She studies social behavior in mammals, specifically the social structure of African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis). https://instagram.com/p/BXtLg7PA6Mu/ https://twitter.com/fancyscientist/status/896457489411170304 https://www.stephanieschuttler.com/african-forest-elephants/ https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=ohf66pEAAAAJ&hl=en&oi=ao

Comments: 208 • Responses: 83  • Date: 

Oax_Mike50 karma

In /r/travel you often see posts asking about where one can ethically ride an elephant.

Such threads quickly degenerate into half saying "nowhere" and half claiming to have had a "totally legit" experience.

What's your personal take on the elephant riding industry...should it be a 100% no-go if you wish to be an ethical traveler or are some elephant sanctuaries truly on the up-and-up to the point that riding with them is an overall win for the animals?

FancyScientist109 karma

Asian elephants are weird because they are "tame" not domesticated. In other words, they are not bred for thousands of generations to live alongside humans. Captive elephants are still taken from the wild and the have to go through a process in order for them to be tame to humans. I am personally against this and the elephant riding industry because I think this process is too invasive and inhumane. You have to be really careful about places that call themselves "sanctuaries." A true sanctuary does not let you touch animals UNLESS they have an animal that cannot be released to the wild for some reason. But those are usually rare cases. A sanctuary where you can touch babies is likely not a real sanctuary and just a business for tourists.

mcfaddes22215 karma

Do you know if it's true that their spines aren't meant to be ridden? As vet students we learn this and it makes sense but didn't know what your take was!

FancyScientist24 karma

I've never heard that so I don't know if it's true. However, I would guess yes because domesticated animals like horses have been bred/selected for human use. Wild animals would evolve independent of this criteria.

J4CKR4BB1TSL1MS12 karma

The general consensus is that elephants should never be ridden. This is indeed because there spine structure is different to that of, e.g., horses. It's obviously less harmful if there's no enormous saddle involved and if the person riding an elephant is sitting in its neck, but still an impactful weight on the elephant's bone structure.

As I've had explained to me and experienced firsthand afterwards, I fully support the below statement:

When visiting elephants, why would you even want to sit on them? It's a way more beautiful experience to walk along them, stand besides them, and look them in the eyes when interacting with them, rather than sitting on top of them and looking down at the top of their heads.

Riding an elephant is, since I had the above said to me and experienced it, just a gimmicky thing that people would want to 'cross off', so I am very happy with my decision to visit and donate to more ethical sanctuaries that are very much opposed to this.

As said above, also avoid camps and sanctuaries that allow interacting and playing with babies, for the elephants wellbeing.

FancyScientist17 karma

Yes, I totally agree with you. I wrote other comments about not riding elephants and not supporting fake sanctuaries. I studied their social behavior, not their anatomy. The question was about their spine, not the ethics of whether they should be ridden or not. I agree with you 100% that elephants should not be ridden for ethical reasons.

J4CKR4BB1TSL1MS5 karma

Didn't realize it only addressed that part, my apologies.

FancyScientist10 karma

No worries! I'm glad you care about elephants!

Vulgarvultures3 karma

In the brothers grimsby Sasha bara Cohen and his brother hid in an elephant vagina to avoid being killed by mercenaries. How big is an elephant vagina and could you effectively hide in one???

FancyScientist4 karma

I do not know off the top of my head. I would have to look this up, BUT a male elephant's penis is S-shaped. So the human would have to contort their body to fit!

viborg23 karma

I recently read that the UK is a leading source of ivory products. Assuming it's true, why is it the case?

Also, if you're reading this and didn't upvote the submission please do it now. This is currently sitting at +1 with 5 responses.

FancyScientist23 karma

I would have to look up the UK specifically, but I do know the US is #2 in the illegal ivory trade (or at least it was a year or more ago). US and UK have large cities with lots of rich people that can afford ivory. It's still viewed as a desirable good (worth more than gold), so as long as there is demand people will buy it. You can buy ivory legally too in these countries if it is vintage. The laws are specific to the country though and in the US specific to the state. It is a misconception that purchasing ivory products is a problem only in China or other Asian countries. The US is a big marked.

memduhcagridemir17 karma

Is it true that elephants have such a strong memory they do not forget anything?

FancyScientist52 karma

Yes! It's true that they have great memories. However, it's really hard to study this and probably unlikely they remember everything (just like us). We know they have good memories because during droughts they return to water sources they haven't used for a very long time. They have greeting ceremonies with elephants they know and researchers can count the number of individuals they have these ceremonies with and how long they've seen each other in between. There are also amazing greeting ceremonies in captivity. This is an amazing story of elephants that remembered each other after being separated for 20 years: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lF8em4uPdCg

_Der_Hammer_2 karma

I've seen touching footage of elephants mourning over elephant bones. How do they know it was an elephant, and if they knew the deceased? Were we misreading the situation?

FancyScientist8 karma

We don't know how they know it's an elephant, but scientists have studied this. In one study scientists presented ivory (an elephant tusk) and a piece of wood similarly shaped to wild African elephants. In another study, they put out the skulls of an elephant, buffalo, and rhino. In both studies, the elephants spent more time touching and investigating the elephant bones than the non-elephant ones. It's really hard to study what is going on in their brains, but it is so interesting!

filipinonugget15 karma

Elephants are such intelligent creatures, do they ever get stressed out/depressed when they live in zoos? Are they simply better off in the wild?

FancyScientist34 karma

Yes, absolutely. Animals that we infer are stressed or depressed will exhibit non-natural behavior or repeated behaviors (like pacing or head bobbing). There is a lot of pressures on zoos today to either let go of their elephants and give them to sanctuaries or to expand elephant enclosures. Some scientists think it is unethical to hold elephants in captivity because of how social they are in the wild and how much area they use. Other scientists think it's important for elephants to be seen by the public to act as "animal ambassadors" for those in the wild. If people don't see elephants, they might not care if they go extinct. The good news is that elephants are not taken from the wild anymore for zoos (at least in the US). Zoos now try to captivity breed them. However, it's really difficult to breed them in captivity and no one really knows why.

PmMeYourAsianDong3 karma

Can zoos significantly decrease stereotypic behaviors by increasing keeper-elephant interaction, without enlarging enclosure space?

FancyScientist11 karma

Not by increasing keeper-elephant interaction, but by giving them things that mimic behaviors they would naturally do in the wild. Elephants love water so giving them pools or other water features to use would help. Or making food more difficult to get. When I worked in Disney's Animal Kingdom, they designed a giraffe feeder to mimic their natural foraging behavior of leaves on African trees rather than just giving them food. Elephants also like to dig with their tusks (in the wild to get minerals) so some zoos have mounds built up where they can do this.

Thurgood_Marshall0 karma

How is that good news? An elephant still has to live in a shitty small environment

FancyScientist5 karma

I agree that size is really important. But enrichment is better than nothing if there is no other option for the elephant. Some zoos have even given their elephants to large sanctuaries because they have felt it was unethical to keep them in their current enclosure and could not physically expand for other reasons.

Catchthedog10 karma

How did you become an elephant scientist?

FancyScientist30 karma

In a very indirect way! I always loved animals growing up, but the only scientist I knew of was Jane Goodall. I thought what she did was so brave - move to remote Tanzania to live with chimpanzees - that I never thought I had it in me to do something like that. I also didn't know how to become a scientist. I wanted to be an actress when I was in college, but studied biology too as a major. In case acting didn't work out I thought I could go to med school and choose the "safe" career of being a medical doctor. My brother suggested I study abroad and I loved that idea. I was looking at theater programs in Europe and I came across the School for Field Studies brochure for Kenya. I thought I would never be brave enough to travel to Kenya alone and really wanted to do it. So, I did it and I learned how to go about being a wildlife biologist. I switched my major completely to biology and then did three internships after I graduated including one with the School for Field Studies in Kenya. I applied for graduate school and chose my advisor based on her research (using non-invasive genetics to study animals). I had always been fascinated by elephants and there is SO LITTLE research done on African forest elephants that I chose them as my focal species.

SkulduggeryPleasant79 karma

When's World Elephant Day?

FancyScientist10 karma

Today! August 12th.

SkulduggeryPleasant71 karma

Great. What'l do you think is the best initiatives to increase elephant populations worldwide?

FancyScientist8 karma

Stopping the poaching. Elephants actually reproduce really well when they are left alone (not poached). People have to stop buying ivory products and existing populations need to be protected. Funding rangers' salaries is a great way to do this. Wildlife Conservation Society, World Wildlife Fund, and the African Wildlife Foundation all fund rangers in protected areas.

supercerealthrowaway9 karma

How would you rate the elephant sanctuary in Hoehenwald TN? My grandma adopted an elephant there and loves it. I try to donate at least $20 a year (I'm broke!)

FancyScientist8 karma

Very highly! They are a fantastic organization. We have adopted elephants frequently for Christmas presents.

iorgfeflkd8 karma

Has there been any progress or attempts to "decode" the infrasound communications that elephants send each other through the ground?

FancyScientist14 karma

Yes, but most of the research on understanding elephant communication is using it to help combat poaching. If elephants go extinct, there will be no "elephant language" to decode. I wrote a blog about some of their vocalizations: https://wildlifesnpits.wordpress.com/2016/04/06/eavesdropping-on-elephants/

mcfaddes2227 karma

What's the best way to help support these animals and either donate or volunteer in your opinion?

FancyScientist24 karma

  1. Spread the word about ivory through social media and friends. Developed countries like the US have huge illegal markets. Elephants are purposely killed for their ivory. Tusks are not shed and there are not enough elephants to die of natural causes for them to be collected. This is a big misconception. When people buy ivory, they are told the tusks are shed and grow back.

  2. Donate. Give to organizations like the African Fund for Wildlife, Wildlife Conservation Society, and the World Wildlife Fund. These organizations pay rangers' salaries so they can monitor and protect existing elephant populations.

  3. Call/write your government. The Obama administration gave 10 million to fight wildlife trafficking with a focus on elephants and rhinos. Tell your reps you care about international wildlife and you want tax payer money to go to help combat it. It's also a human rights issue as in many areas terrorist organizations come in to shoot elephants using helicopters and military grade weapons.

RoosterSamurai7 karma

Why are baby elephants so cute?

FancyScientist21 karma

Little trunks? Floppy ears?

Pepsi_Men6 karma

What's the weirder thing about elephants?

FancyScientist20 karma

That they touch the bones of other elephants, even more so than other species they come across. Scientists have studied this in the wild and have presented elephants with the bones of elephants among other animals. They spend more time with elephant bones. This research was initiated because scientists in the field noticed that elephants would come across elephant bones and spend a lot of time touching them, almost like they are remembering the individual. Elephants also go out of their way to help other elephants that are in distress or dying. Even if they aren't genetically related and after already they have died. There are very few animals that do this. Humans are one of them!

BirdThatSteals956 karma

Are elephant graveyards a real thing? I feel like no because if they were people could just find mass elephant graves and collect truck loads of ivory from them instead of killing alive ones.

FancyScientist11 karma

No, they are not. Currently, it's rare for an elephant to die of natural causes. Most elephants are poached (killed illegally) for their tusks. Even if an elephant does die naturally, in many countries game wardens will find the carcass and cut off the tusks so poachers cannot get them.

alficles5 karma

What does the game warden do with said tusks? It seems like keeping them somewhere would just create a target for theft. And selling them as "ethical ivory" seems a fraught business.

FancyScientist8 karma

It depends on the country. They stockpile them and in some countries they sell them. These countries argue the money can be reinvested into the country to help protect living elephants. Others burn or destroy their ivory to make a statement: https://wildlifesnpits.wordpress.com/2013/11/12/destroying-ivory-to-save-elephants/. These countries argue what you are saying. That ivory added to the market will help make it stronger. The research on this shows that the one-off stockpile sales do not increase demand for ivory, but they also don't decrease it. I side with the countries that destroy their ivory.

CaptionClosed2 karma

What can I do to help poaching? You can legally kill poachers in some places now, iirc?

FancyScientist6 karma

Donate money to an organization that helps combat poaching by funding rangers' salaries to protect existing elephants and also end corruption in African governments. Some I like are the Wildlife Conservation Society, African Wildlife Foundation, and World Wildlife Fund.

one_headlight_5 karma

Do you think law makers will ever make it illegal for circuses to have elephants or any other animals that should be left in the wild?

FancyScientist21 karma

Yes I do - at least for elephants. There is growing pressure from the public and scientists to improve the lives of captive elephants in general. Circuses are particularly bad. They cannot train the elephants without abusing them. If you watch the trainer they always use a bullhook, which is a pole with a point end. Advocates of elephant welfare have tried to ban the bullhook, but circuses are against it. They claim it does not hurt the elephant, but that they just gently guide the elephant. If this were true, they could use another instrument that did not have a sharp end. I think it is just a matter of time for people to stop going to animal circus. They will either be illegal or unsupported financially. I was really happy when Ringling Brothers announced they would no longer have elephants. This was a BIG move forward. I am not against circuses, only the use of animals in circuses.

zaporizhian5 karma

Is it true that just recently some African elephants are being born without tusks?

FancyScientist10 karma

Yes, definitely. Where I worked, in Lope National Park, Gabon, there was a high percentage of naturally tuskless elephants (about 10% of the females I studied). I just posted one on my instagram feed: https://www.instagram.com/p/BXs8-MmA7m3/?taken-by=fancy_scientist

TheFlowersYouGave4 karma

What is the reasoning or explanation for this happening?

FancyScientist10 karma

Poaching (illegal killing of animals) for their tusks. Lots of the big tusker elephants are killed off. Their tusks are worth a lot of money - more so than gold. If these elephants are killed off, they cannot contribute to the gene pool (reproduce). But elephants that do not have tusks will be left alone and not killed. These elephants can reproduce and survive. If tusklessness is genetic, these genes will be passed on.

expertly-adequate5 karma

I travelled south east Asia and in Thailand there were a lot of elephant sanctuaries which allowed tourists to visit. When we arrived there were over 50 people to four elephants and my friends and I immediately felt uncomfortable with how stressed the elephants seemed to be.

What is your honest opinion on this business? Is it a necessary evil to keep these sanctuaries running (they were very anti the riding industry)? How would you recommend ethically seeing elephants?

Edit for grammar

FancyScientist9 karma

You have to be really careful about places that call themselves "sanctuaries." A true sanctuary does not let you touch animals UNLESS they have an animal that cannot be released to the wild for some reason. But those are usually rare cases. A sanctuary where you can touch lots of animals (especially babies) are likely not a real sanctuary and just a business for tourists and ultimately bad for the animals. Whenever I travel, I do research on places that have animals before I visit. Many do harm rather than good.

My questions would be on this sanctuary - Where did the elephants come from? Where were they "rescued" from? Why can't they be leased back to the wild? I am guessing they were likely captive and could not be released. I think the Tennessee Elephant Sanctuary is a good example of one done right. These elephants are free-roaming and you cannot touch them.

To ethically see elephants, try to see them in the wild. It's very easy to see them on safari in countries throughout East and South Africa. I am not as familiar with how easy it is to see elephants in Asia. I have been to India before, but was not in their natural range. I would rather not see an animal than contribute to a practice that was inhumane/stressful to the animal.

Pugmas4 karma

Where do elephants sleep? Do they makes nest beds or just lay in grass? Do they lay down together?


FancyScientist11 karma

They sleep anywhere! They can sleep standing up, but I've also (only once) seen them laying down. They do not make nests. They are weird animals in that they can be active really at any time. You'll see them during the day, but then at night they can also be really active. I worked on forest elephants and we suspected that they mostly sleep in the forest (there were some savanna patches in the park I worked in). But we have no idea exactly where for African forest elephants.

DrPhrawg4 karma

What is your favorite outfit to wear in the field? If it depends on climate/location, give us some examples.

FancyScientist10 karma

Yes, it totally depends!

Kenya: You can wear anything! Most of your work will take place in the car because it's too dangerous (because of lions, etc) and too time consuming to be on foot. You can wear regular clothes, but bring layers. It's surprising cold in the morning, but then gets really hot in the afternoon.

Mt. Kenya field work: I did this recently (https://wildlifesnpits.wordpress.com/2015/10/22/expedition-mt-kenya-the-hike-to-the-top/) and although it's Kenya the climate is different. It can get VERY cold and wet so layers are essential. I liked wearing REI or other field pants (because they are light and dry fast) and shirts mostly from sporting brands (Underarmour, Athleta). I loved the fleece running stretch pants. They are really warm and you can wear them under things.

Gabon: If I was in the car (which was most of the time) a t-shirt/tank top and field pants. I would wear sandals but bring muck boots. I tried to collect poop for DNA analysis so I had to go in the swamps. If I was walking a lot in the forest I preferred hiking boots, but Lope was pretty dry compared to other places.

I think a lot of people overthink field clothes. I mostly just wear old stuff! If it gets dirty or destroyed I won't care. I do like high quality field pants though because they last a long time and are tougher.

BasicallyBelle3 karma

In the US which AZA accredited "zoos" have the best facilities for elephants (like best exhibit, best care)?

What's a really interesting little known fact about African elephants?

What is the most important thing we can teach people about African elephants?

FancyScientist2 karma

I do not know which has the best. I haven't researched this or visited all zoos. I know that Disney's Animal Kingdom does a good job and the North Carolina Zoo also does because they have A LOT of space. I have never visited the San Diego Zoo, but they have a lot of research devoted to captive and wild animals so I would not be surprised if their elephant exhibits had excellent care.

That elephants help out other elephants when they are sick or dying and even go out of their way to do so, and even when they are not related to them. There's no biological reason why they should do this! Here's a scientific paper on one dying matriarch: http://savetheelephants.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/2006DeathofMatriarch.pdf

The most important thing we can teach people about elephants is that purchasing ivory is directly leading to the decline of elephants. It is not a sustainable industry. Elephants are sought after and killed exclusively for their ivory.

milesofnothing3 karma

Has ivory hunting pressure resulted in changes in tusk morphology? Some elephants have small or no tusks, is that being selected for or has there not been enough time to see a change?

Edit: Sorry for the non-behavioral question!

FancyScientist7 karma

Yes, definitely. There are far fewer big "tuskers" now than there used to be because they are poached first. Where I worked, in Lope National Park, Gabon, there was a high percentage of naturally tuskless elephants (about 10% of the females I studied). There were also quite a few with really small tusks. You can see in this photo: https://wildlifesnpits.wordpress.com/2016/04/06/eavesdropping-on-elephants/. Elephants naturally vary in tusk shape. African forest elephants tend to have straighter tusks while African savanna elephant have curvier tusks.

notjustatourist3 karma

Dr. Stutler, thank you for this AMA. I'm curious, elephants appear to act so similarly to humans in many ways that it saddens me we (humans as a collective) don't appreciate them, their intelligence and awareness more. What progress have we made, if any, in learning to communicate and connect with them?

FancyScientist3 karma

There are a lot of people who care about elephants (look at this thread!), but yes, it saddens me too that poaching is still a HUGE problem for elephants. We don't really need to communicate and connect with the elephants, we need to communicate and connect with humans. If people learned that purchasing ivory is NOT sustainable and that elephants are purposely killed for this, then many would actually not buy it. People are frequently told that elephant tusks' are shed or they are found naturally dead. This is not true. Also, much work needs to be done to stop corruption in African governments.

In Asia, human-elephant conflict is a bigger problem than poaching due to loss of habitat. Again communication and helping people live with elephants is key. It's difficult because in both Africa and Asia elephants crop raid and can ruin people's livelihoods. It's a complicated problem without an easy solution.

If you are interested in elephant communication, you can check out the Elephant Listening Project. They are interested in communication, but first are trying to work on using communication to stop poaching. I blogged about it here: https://wildlifesnpits.wordpress.com/2016/04/06/eavesdropping-on-elephants/

JJThatTallGuy3 karma

Hi Dr Schuttler! Thanks for doing an AMA. Do you think we could ever wind up in a planet of the apes scenario but with elephants?

FancyScientist4 karma

Haha, I am embarrassed to say I have never seen Planet of the Apes! But I think I get the idea of what it is about. What I can say is that elephants are among the most intelligent animals on the planet and have very sophisticated/complex social behaviors.

BenFranklinsCat3 karma

I can't believe nobody has yet asked - as an elephant scientist, how do you hold beakers and stuff without any fingers or thumbs? Do you do it all with your trunk?

FancyScientist2 karma

haha, it's a misnomer that all scientists use beakers!

GamesByH2 karma

If you're a elephant scientist, are there walrus scientists?

FancyScientist1 karma

Absolutely! I don't know of any personally though.

ScumbagsRme2 karma

I work renaissance festivals and I have spent time with the elephants there. After several years around them I know they are very well cared for and are genuinely happy creatures but we constantly have activists around. Is a lot of human contact a positive thing for elephants? Do you feel having an elephant give rides is cruel or inhumane?

Edit: I do not personally handle the animals but I travel the country doing the same events as them and my friends have been the actual workers with them.

FancyScientist6 karma

Yes, I think elephant rides are inhumane and I am against them. These elephants are trained through the use of a bullhook, which is a wooden pole with a pointy end. Elephant trainers claim it does not hurt the elephant, but that they just gently "guide" the elephant. If this were true, they could use another instrument that did not have a sharp end. Yet when people try to ban the bullhook, there is a lot of opposition from circuses and other places with elephant rides. Human contact is not a positive thing for elephants and many zoos are moving to or have moved to a protected contact policy. I used to work at Disney's Animal Kingdom and the zookeepers there now train the elephants there (for medical purposes) behind a barrier. The elephants can end training whenever they want. It is also safer for the zookeepers.

Mantisbog2 karma

Can elephants be used to fight ISIS?

FancyScientist7 karma

Technically yes for Asian elephants, but I think they would be bad at it and it would be inhumane to the elephant. African elephants are incredibly hard to tame.

Geometer_John2 karma

Didja ever read Blue Remembered Earth? What do you think of the (science-fiction) ideas that the author presents, of using biological modification to genetically shrink elephants into a small container and save them from a dying earth, but neurologically linking them to a real tribe elsewhere to avoid social isolation?

FancyScientist3 karma

No, I never read this. This would be extremely hard to do! I prefer we try to save the ones we have now. There are still lots of strongholds for elephants and the biggest threat for African elephants is poaching, not loss of habitat. Where I worked in Gabon, there are still large tracks of forest for them to live in. Even though these forests are logged, elephants can live through the disturbance (and can even thrive in it!).

Alabatman2 karma

Do you have a favorite organization that you recommend people support to protect our large grey friends?

Why do you like them and what do you think they do that is great?

FancyScientist2 karma

There are a lot of great organizations. I like Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), African Wildlife Foundation, and World Wildlife Fund. I've worked with lots of WCS people in Gabon and they do excellent work. All of those organizations fund a lot of "boots on the ground" or rangers to patrol populations to deter poaching.

FatboyChuggins2 karma

If I saw an elephant and slowly with good vibes smiled and stuff, what are the chances the elephant will be cool and not kill me?

FancyScientist2 karma

Very, very high. Most elephants are really nice, especially in areas where there is a lot of safaris/ecotourism. In Amboseli National Park, Kenya, you can get very close to the elephants there (in your car). I worked in a park though (Lope National Park, Gabon) with a history of poaching and the elephants were very skittish, and some were aggressive. Several "attacked" the field station when I did my work there: http://www.awf.org/blog/elephants-central-africa-giants-dark

SMLM_Robot1 karma

Elephants are reported to have increased numbers of so-called "spindle neurons" involved in emotion and social functions of the brain, similar to primates.

Do elephants display the same asymmetric distribution of spindle neurons as primates? In general, given what I presume is a limited number of tissue samples, where has neuroscience progressed in elephants? It seems like we have a lot to learn about these intelligent creatures.

FancyScientist1 karma

I do not know! This is a really good question, but not my area of expertise. I do know that elephants are among the most intelligent animals on Earth.

Myrnalinbd1 karma

Is the African Elephant gonna go extinct?

FancyScientist2 karma

There are two species of African elephant: forest and savanna (or bush). If the current rate of poaching continues (about 96 elephants a day!), then yes, both would become extinct. However, I think this trend can be reversed and there are definitely populations in South and East Africa that are strongholds for African savanna elephants. They have a lot of tourists visit these areas on safari and researchers there so I think it would be difficult for this species to become completely extinct. I do not think this is the case for African forest elephants though. Because they live in the forest and are difficult to see, it is much easier to conceal poaching. This species is at real risk of extinction.

Leandover1 karma

What do you think of elephants being taken from the wild and placed in 'sanctuaries'?

In Sumatra, where there is deforestation and wild elephants come into contact with humans, many elephants have been forcibly tamed and placed in sanctuaries. Some sanctuaries work without tourists and the elephants suffer from lack of veterinary care and eventually die, while others make $$$ from tourists but the elephants are basically in a circus doing rides and tricks.

FancyScientist1 karma

I do not think these sanctuaries are good or helping elephants. There are a couple of other threads on these types of sanctuaries. I think they are inhumane and not real sanctuaries. Real sanctuaries are for animals that cannot be released to the wild. They rarely let people touch animals, unless there is an animal that is really used to people. Again, this is rare!

invitroveritas1 karma

Based on the little knowledge I have of elephants, if I were an animal, I'd be an elephant.

What animal would you say you'd be, and what got you interested in elephants in the first place?

FancyScientist3 karma

Elephants are my favorite animal, but if I were any animal, based on my personality I think I would be a honey badger because they are feisty and tough!

I got interested in elephants because they have so many weird and sophisticated behaviors. I answered this in another comment: they touch the bones of other elephants, even more so than other species they come across. Scientists have studied this in the wild and have presented elephants with the bones of elephants among other animals. They spend more time with elephant bones. This research was initiated because scientists in the field noticed that elephants would come across elephant bones and spend a lot of time touching them, almost like they are remembering the individual. Elephants also go out of their way to help other elephants that are in distress or dying. Even if they aren't genetically related and after already they have died. There are very few animals that do this. Humans are one of them!

Elephants also also really smart, have sophisticated social networks and societies. I could not believe that African forest elephants were so little studied. When I found this out, I knew I had to study them.

BrokeWhoregan1 karma

What's your favorite thing about African Forest Elephants? Is there any behaviors that make them unique to other elephants?

FancyScientist2 karma

My favorite thing is that they are keystone species! They eat A LOT of fruit and a large diversity of fruit. When they pass the seeds, they are pooped out and in good fertilizer (the dung). Then a tree sprouts from the poop. Some plants have evolved exclusively to grow only after being passed by forest elephants. These elephants can disperse plants many kilometers away! This is not unique to forest elephants, but they have the highest diversity of plants in their diet and eat the most fruits.

The thing unique about forest elephants is that they don't seem to have the extensive social structure that the other species have. This is what I studied: https://wildlifesnpits.wordpress.com/2014/12/10/behind-the-paper-finding-friendships-in-secretive-elephants/

BrokeWhoregan1 karma

This might be a weird question, but can you take tusks from a live elephant? If so, would it be ethical or effective if people went around tranquilizing elephants and cutting off their tusks so that they aren't targeted by poachers?

FancyScientist3 karma

When I give talks a lot of people ask me this! The answer is no for several reasons. Tranquilizing elephants is costly and dangerous to the elephant. If they don't fall right, they can actually die. The elephants don't need tusks to survive (some are born without tusks), but they do help them in many ways such helping them push over trees or digging up soil (to access minerals). But the biggest reason why it would not be effective is because the tusk goes all the way into their skull. If an elephant's tusk is cut off, poachers could still kill the elephant and get a large chunk of ivory that sits inside their skull. The tusks are large teeth.

aecht1 karma

is Chris Ivory your favorite NFL player?

FancyScientist7 karma

Lol, no because I'm against the sale of ivory!

PapaLGH1 karma

Would the cancer regulating protein in elephants work in our genetics? I believe they have some extra protein that also aids in proof reading translation and transcription.

FancyScientist3 karma

This is not my area of research, but I think with the way science is advancing this could be possible, but it would be difficult to do and we are still far away from doing something like this. Scientists research naked mole rats for this reason as well. They do not get cancer and scientists are using them as a model to study how this can be applied to humans.

Vinsilla1 karma

I have a personal question. What's your lifestyle like? How often do you travel/how long do you usually spend in one place? Do you have a spouse/family?

As a woman who is very interested in going into animal science I would find any info about yourself and your life very interesting/insightful.

FancyScientist2 karma

Most days it is very normal. I honestly mostly work at my computer reading, writing, or analyzing data all day long. Also answering emails! I now work on a camera trap project and I am lucky in that I get to travel frequently for this. When I did my Ph.D. on forest elephants, I went to Gabon for a total of 8 months divided over two times. Now, I rarely spend long periods of time in one place. In 2015, I did an expedition in Kenya that lasted 6 weeks, but most places I go to for only a few days or a week. I have a husband, pets, but no kids. I was never interested in having kids personally (although I love other people's kids!). There is a lot of variation in travel in this type of work. Lots of my colleagues do not travel frequently and many have families.

AndrogynyAndBeyond1 karma

I've been looking for a position in wildlife conservation oversees but I'm noticing it's a lot more difficult than I thought. How should I go about getting a steady job oversees taking care of wildlife with only a BA in Animal Behavior? Graduate school seems financially out of reach at the moment.

The general advice I get is to make connections and volunteer at various programs. However, volunteer programs don't help pay for rent and I'm struggling.

(Sorry that this isn't the best question for your expertise)?

FancyScientist1 karma

This is really difficult now because everything is really competitive. For many positions, even if they are volunteer positions, you will have to pay for the experience. Because so many people want to work internationally, they are willing to pay for it. I would recommend working locally first if you cannot find anything overseas. Just get your foot in the door and it will lead to other things. You can check out positions on online sites. When I was looking, I liked ecolog, Texas A & M fisheries and wildlife job page, and the Society for Conservation Biology job page best.

WickerGerald1 karma

Hey Dr. Schuttler! Thank you for doing this AMA on one of the planet's most amazing animal. How has poaching affected the family structure of Elephants in recent years?

FancyScientist3 karma

Absolutely because individuals are completely removed from the family. I studied the social structure of African forest elephants, but we don't know to what extent it has affected their social structure: https://wildlifesnpits.wordpress.com/2014/12/10/behind-the-paper-finding-friendships-in-secretive-elephants/.

In savanna elephants, this has been studied: http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(15)01366-4?_returnURL=http%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS0960982215013664%3Fshowall%3Dtrue. It doesn't upset the family structure completely because the daughters learn the relationships.

Daxter6141 karma

Very disappointed when I realized you were a scientist who studied elephants, and not an elephant who studied science.

But anyway whats your favorite animal that isn't an elephant? And why?

FancyScientist1 karma

Haha. Sorry to disappoint! Favorite animals are so hard for me. There are SO MANY cool ones! I honestly like most all animals, but I am definitely a sucker for the traditionally "charismatic" ones like sea turtles, big cats, etc. I like otters a lot because they are really social and fun to watch. Lately I am into more common, unappreciated animals. I work with camera traps now all over the world, but especially in North Carolina. I love the opossums, raccoons, foxes, and coyotes we get and bringing attention to them. Lots of people don't like opossums, but there are so many cool things about them!

AdoreMei1 karma

Hey love! I have 2 question that I always want to know.
Are elephants really afraid of mice?
When I used to work at a plant nursery I heard that the jade plant/elephant plant (Crassula ovata) are elephants favorite plants to eat. Is that true?

FancyScientist1 karma

No, they are not afraid of mice. That myth likely started because a captive elephant got scared by one. They have poor eyesight and were likely startled by one, but similar behaviors have also been observed in captive elephants when dogs were around.

I studied elephants mostly in Gabon where they eat mostly fruit, but literally hundreds of species of plants! I honestly do not know. It looks like this plant is native to Southern Africa and my work in Africa has taken place in East and Central Africa. East African elephants also eat a large variety of plants, but have less diversity than forest elephants.

AdoreMei1 karma

There was a Mythbuster episode where they "confirm" that elephant is afraid of mice. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXiMs65ZAeU What's your input on it?

Also, thank you for answering my second question! Happy Elephant Day! :D :D

FancyScientist3 karma

That it's not a good study! Sample size is very low (they only tested on a few animals it looks like). Also, is it the mouse or movement from an animal? Would elephants react the same way with a squirrel? Cat? Dog? Very hard to show fear too. Like the guys alluded to, is it scared or just avoiding it? It may be it didn't want to step on it. There are stories of elephants going out of their way to avoid stepping on other living animals. However, it could be true, elephants may fear mice, but this doesn't convince me. I would need a better study.

MDFLC1 karma

Hello Dr. Schuttler. Can elephants peel peanuts with their trunks, or do they eat it whole? In cartoons they portray elephants as "peanut lovers". Thanks for your time today!

FancyScientist1 karma

I honestly don't know because I studied wild elephants. I imagine they can. Their trunks have tips which are extremely dextrous. Wild African forest elephants can delicately pick grape-sized fruits off of plants. Here's one picking a small fruit in Gabon: https://www.instagram.com/p/BXs8-MmA7m3/?taken-by=fancy_scientist

morepork_owl1 karma

What's been the most surprising aspect of their behaviour?

FancyScientist1 karma

Where I worked the elephants can be really aggressive and charge a lot. The most surprising thing that happened to me was when our field station was "attacked" by elephants. I blogged about it here: http://www.awf.org/blog/elephants-central-africa-giants-dark

TheBrixster1 karma

What is your favorite and most interesting piece of information about an elephant's trunk?

FancyScientist1 karma

That it is very dextrous! They have one or two tips at the end of their trunk (depending on species) and can pick up very small things. Heres's an African forest elephant picking a fruit off of a tree in Gabon: https://www.instagram.com/p/BXs8-MmA7m3/?taken-by=fancy_scientist.

Rollipollipotamus1 karma

I saw a video where an elephant painted a picture under the guide if it's trainer. Is this ethical or animal abuse teaching an elephant to perform a trick like that?

FancyScientist2 karma

I think anything done for amusement under the guide of a trainer is bad. In reputable zoos, animals will only do "tricks" for medical purposes. For example, they will train elephants to present an ear because this is where they draw blood from. Elephants are trained using a bullhook, which is a heavy pole with a sharp metal end. Elephant trainers say that they use this pole to gently "guide" the elephant, yet when people try to ban it, they are against the ban. If it was really a gentle guide, they would not need a sharp, metal end. Good zoos have moved away from human interactions like these and have let contact between humans and elephants only be for medical reasons.

nullagravida1 karma

Can you explain "musth"? I just read about it recently and it sounds like a very unpleasant experience for everyone, including the elephant having it. Is it a pathology of some kind, or a normal function? What purpose does it serve? Seems weird for nature to have allowed/preserved a maladaptive trait so there must (ha ha) be some benefit.

FancyScientist1 karma

Musth is a heightened sexual state that occurs in male elephants. It's completely normal! The rise in hormones that occurs during musth makes them both more desirable to females and makes them more able to compete with other males for females. It essentially makes the male elephant dominant in the population during times of musth. Older males go through the longest periods of musth and can suppress younger males. They also go through musth during the wet season when there is more food/water available. Removing older males (from poaching) messes up this system and in cases where this has happened, young elephants can "misbehave." For example in South Africa, young males were killing rhinos. They brought in older males and they were able to suppress the young ones.

000chuy0001 karma

Hi, I have read an article on Woolly Mammoths back to life. Is this possible? What are your thoughts on resurrecting an animal that once roamed Earth?

FancyScientist2 karma

I definitely think this is possible and Asian scientists (I think in Japan and China) are working on this. I honestly think it can happen in the next few decades. Here are the pros and cons of it IMO.

Pros - It would be really cool and advance science. It would take a lot of breakthroughs to make this happen and the science involved in making this happen could likely be applied to other endangered species that are difficult to breed in captivity (like elephants actually!). This could help such species in conservation efforts via reintroductions. Also, you never know what such advances can be applied to: https://wildlifesnpits.wordpress.com/2017/07/04/top-10-reasons-science-is-patriotic/.

Cons - I think it is unethical. Research suggests mammoths were social (like elephants) and I think it would be inhumane to raise a mammoth alone. I also think the knowledge that we could gain from this mammoth would be extremely limited. Elephants learn a lot of their behaviors from their mothers and social network. The surrogate would be an Asian elephant. If a mammoth is raised by an Asian elephant would it act like a mammoth? Probably not. It would probably act more like an Asian elephant. Also, what is the point? Just because it's cool? The mammoth could not be released anywhere and would just be held in captivity. People are growing increasingly concerned about elephants in captivity (if they should be held in captivity at all), so to bring a mammoth back to life for this purpose seems pointless.

In general, I am against this. However for animals that have recently gone extinct AND due to human persecution mainly (and not habitat loss), I am for the bringing back of these species. For example, the Tasmanian tiger. As long as there is suitable habitat for them in the wild, I think it is an okay thing to do. However, one has to wonder, why would we spend so much money to bring back an extinct species when there are so many on the brink of extinction right now? Would the money invested in a project like this be better fit for working on those species? These are the questions us scientists have to struggle with!

addcream1 karma

Are there any sanctuaries you recommend besides the one in Tennessee? Have you yourself interacted with a particular elephant to group of elephants or just study them from a distance? What about the elephant rescue in Kenya run by the older English lady (can't remember the name but she wrote a book about it)? Elephants are magical. I love them so much.

FancyScientist4 karma

PAWS is good too: http://www.pawsweb.org.

I studied them from a distance in Lope National Park, Gabon. Most would run from me, but some let me get close. The field station I worked at was in the middle of the park and at night when the generator went off, you could see them very close from the inside of your room. On moonlit nights, you could see them just meters from your screened window. Billy was an especially friendly elephant in Lope and was famous, even in the village for being friendly: https://www.instagram.com/p/BXsuG5dAdfp/?taken-by=fancy_scientist

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is an orphanage, not a sanctuary. The difference is that they find young, orphaned elephants and rhinos and release them into the wild when they are old enough. In sanctuaries, the animals cannot be released. They are usually former circus or zoo elephants. David Sheldrick is a great organization and has done a lot for elephant conservation.

joshlamm1 karma

What is currently the "cutting edge" of elephant research? In other words, what are scientists like you trying to learn now that you don't already know?

FancyScientist2 karma

Good question! This is a hard one to answer and depends on what type of elephant research you are doing. A lot of research on wild elephants now is focused on trying to use technology to protect them. For example, using drones to monitor them, especially in the forest where they are difficult to see. Or creating GPS trackers that can go on their tusks (and stay on them) so if one is poached they can track down the poacher. Also devices to monitor elephants in real time. For example, creating video or audio recorders that send signals to managers to alert them when gunshots take place.

What I would love to know is about African forest elephants and how big their social networks are. African savanna elephants and Asian elephants have large networks with many individuals, but forest elephant ones are still sparse. However, it's difficult to study this (I tried) and we are likely still not seeing the whole picture.

CaptionClosed1 karma

Do elephants really visit the bones of their dead? If so, is it for the same reasons people do it, or something else?

Thank you.

FancyScientist1 karma

Elephants do take time to touch elephant bones when they come across them. You could call this a visit. And they do go out of their way to visit bones or carcasses if they are in the area, even if they are not related to the individual. No one knows why they do this!

CaptionClosed1 karma

Truly amazing stuff. It's sad that it seems most resources have to focus mostly on reducing poaching instead of further understanding elephants. Poaching shouldn't even be a thing.

FancyScientist1 karma

I know. A lot of researchers can't justify doing things just for science when their study animal is getting obliterated.

KOd061 karma

I've seen in several of your answers that you used to work at DAK. On Kilimanjaro Safaris they mention research that showed that elephants are afraid of bees so they are trying to get African farmers to put beehives around their land to deter elephants (and prevent farmers from killing them). Do you know anything about this research? It seems pretty interesting, and like a great solution!

I also remember seeing something there about a kind of nut that looks very similar to ivory. Do you think there is any kind of value in items made out of this? Or is part of the appeal of owning ivory the kind of "taboo" nature of it?

Love to hear your thoughts, thanks for doing an AMA!

FancyScientist1 karma

Yes, bees can be a deterrent to elephants and prevent crop-raiding. Ivory is desirable because of it's carving ability. You can make incredibly intricate statues/trinkets.

i_am_the_devil_1 karma

Do you ever manually masturbate elephants for artificial insemination?

FancyScientist1 karma

I have never done this. I believe it is done with a machine or a contraption. I don't think it is done manually.

TheFlowersYouGave1 karma

As part of your Students Discover program, are there any plans to move this to high school or college level programming? One that might offer students a chance to travel to Africa and study alongside experts for a few weeks?

Thank you for doing this AMA, elephants (and horses) are my favorite animal. Bonus points if you've read Water For Elephants

FancyScientist1 karma

In Students Discover, we want kids doing real science and the idea is for them to do it where they are. I work on eMammal camera trapping. We do have kids in Kenya set up camera traps around their school and we are definitely open to working with high school and undergrad students around the world. We do not have plans to offer the students to travel because for this program, I do not travel much to set up the camera traps. I usually do initially to bring the cameras over to the country, but once they are set up, the goal is to get the kids taking the science into their own hands. But this is a good idea and I'll keep it in mind.

Ikinhaszkarmakplx21 karma

How big them shits?

FancyScientist1 karma

I actually measured African forest elephant poop for my Ph.D. They tell you if the adult is a juvenile or adult. The biggest ones I had were around 40 cm in circumference, but in African savanna elephants they can be much larger (50 cm). More here: http://www.awf.org/blog/abc’s-elephant-dna

funny_toast1 karma

What are some behaviors I should notice and observe if I wanted to learn more about the mammals around my neighborhood? Are there things that normally go unnoticed to a lot of people?

FancyScientist1 karma

If you want to learn more about mammals, then just watch them! I am sure there are a lot of behaviors that most people ignore. I suggest spending time watching animals, noticing behaviors and then googling them to see if there's a reason why that animal does what it does. Most mammals are really hard to study directly. I now work in a lab that uses motion-trigger camera traps to study mammal behavior.

wotsrab1 karma

While traveling in India I went to an "elephant sanctuary" in Jaipur. On principle I'm against the idea of elephant ride companies but the sanctuary was built up really nicely by people I had met. They swore it was a real sanctuary where they were well kept, rehabilitated, and released. They also said that the government of Rajasthan takes elephant conservation very seriously.

However when I showed up it was disgusting and I left. I took some pictures of some of the conditions with the intent to report them to what I still believed was a very involved Rajasthani government.

Is there any way to report these to a real authority or do the Indian elephant sanctuaries practice with enough autonomy to not care?

FancyScientist1 karma

I don't know as I haven't worked in India for very long. I would have to ask some of my colleagues. One thing you can do is post pictures on TripAdvisor and try to discourage tourists from visiting.

Brian_971 karma

How did you initially get in to this line of work?

FancyScientist2 karma

In a very indirect way! I always loved animals growing up, but the only scientist I knew of was Jane Goodall. I thought what she did was so brave - move to remote Tanzania to live with chimpanzees - that I never thought I had it in me to do something like that. I also didn't know how to become a scientist. I wanted to be an actress when I was in college, but studied biology too as a major. In case acting didn't work out I thought I could go to med school and choose the "safe" career of being a medical doctor. My brother suggested I study abroad and I loved that idea. I was looking at theater programs in Europe and I came across the School for Field Studies brochure for Kenya. I thought I would never be brave enough to travel to Kenya alone and really wanted to do it. So, I did it and I learned how to go about being a wildlife biologist. I switched my major completely to biology and then did three internships after I graduated including one with the School for Field Studies in Kenya. I applied for graduate school and chose my advisor based on her research (using non-invasive genetics to study animals). I had always been fascinated by elephants and there is SO LITTLE research done on African forest elephants that I chose them as my focal species.

uboat571 karma

Why do I hate elephants?

FancyScientist2 karma

Not sure. Need more info!

flacwav1 karma

Top 10 elephants?

FancyScientist2 karma

I'm not sure what you mean by this. Photos of elephants? Or individuals? There are only 3 extant (existing) elephant species.

flacwav1 karma

Specific elephants, like Dumbo, Babar, etc.

FancyScientist6 karma

  1. Mrs. Jumbo from Dumbo (Dumbo's mom). She was a kick ass elephant and rebelled against the circus.
  2. Dumbo. I love this movie, but super sad!
  3. Colonel elephant from The Jungle Book movie. I love their marching songs.
  4. Baby elephant from The Jungle Book movie.
  5. Mr. Snuffleupogus (does he count?)
  6. Horton from Horton Hears a Who.
  7. Babar (I didn't really like Babar).

I don't know of any others!

Guysneet1 karma

When did you start realizing you had a love for elephants?

FancyScientist2 karma

When I saw them in Kenya (2002, about 20 yrs old) and learned about them from an elephant researcher (one of Cynthia Moss'). It's so amazing to be in the presence of such a large animal. It really gives you a visceral reaction. Once I learned about their societies and complex social behavior, I was hooked!

davidc93201 karma

Hi Dr. Schuttler, I would be interested in knowing if in your job you make use of data science/machine learning techniques. If you do, in what way? I suppose you could use them to try to predict their movements over land or decode their "language" (which is something I saw you mention in other posts) or use cameras to automatically track them. As a future biomedical engineer (only a few exams to go!) with a soft spot for machine learning and wildlife, I would love to give my personal contribute to saving animals using my skills. Do you think they could be useful skills in the study and preservation of wildlife? And do you know, by chance, of any universities which offer Ph.D's in the area I mentioned?

Yours is a truly significant job and I have learned a lot from the replies to other posts. Thank you very much!

FancyScientist2 karma

Thanks! I am glad you learned a lot. Machine learning is used in elephant research to study their ear patterns. They get tears in their ears which makes them identifiable. It's not used yet in vocalizations (to my knowledge) except for it may be used to identify when elephants vocalize or gunshots are heard. Elephants have unique voices and you need to capture videos of behaviors to try to determine meaning behind vocalizations, so this still has to be done by humans. In my work now with motion-triggered camera traps, we are working with computer engineers to develop programs to automatically identify the animals. We are doing it right now with experts (us) and it's pretty time consuming.

Yes, this is a very useful skill. I just want to the International Congress for Conservation Biology and there were a lot of sessions on using tech to save wildlife. I think we need way more collaborations between scientists and engineers! I do not know of specific universities though.

davidc93201 karma

So their ear patterns become a bit like fingerprints, that's cool! I would have never guessed it was used in such a way. Thank you very much for the reply. I hope in the future I'll be able to contribute in something this significant as well :)

FancyScientist1 karma

Yes, and in forest elephants, they don't have as many ear tears so you have to use a combination of factors - tusk shape and size and their ear vein patterns. Their ear vein patterns are like fingerprints - all unique!

soxson1 karma

What elephant jokes are you tired of hearing?

FancyScientist2 karma

People don't actually tell me elephant jokes that much! This is my favorite elephant meme: http://funnyand.com/baby-elephant-meme/

pussgurka0 karma


pussgurka1 karma


FancyScientist1 karma

Ok done.

Hispanicatth3disc00 karma

How did you convince a school to let you, an elephant, study to become a scientist?

FancyScientist2 karma

Haha, good grades? ;)

Rush2240 karma

What is your favorite elephant fact?

FancyScientist2 karma

That's tough! Probably that there are three species of extant (living) elephants. African savanna, Asian, and African forest. The latter one was determined a species through genetic studies as recent as 1999. African forest elephants are extremely understudied - we know so little about them. This always surprises me considering elephants are the largest land animals.

T-D-S-4 karma

hi elephant scientist ! my question is -> Why does grape flavor smell the way it is when actual grapes don’t taste or smell anything like it.?

i understand this has nothing to do with elephants but you did say ask you anything :)

FancyScientist1 karma

Haha, no idea!