Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Endangered Elephants: scientists unlock mysteries while numbers decline in Indonesia

Often in this blog, I cite some of the new and unusual things we are learning about life in the ocean. Much of it is literally uncharted territory with new species and biological processes cropping up all the time.

But let's not forget terra firma, too. Take for example an iconic land animal, one that we have observed and studied for many years: the elephant. Even today, the elephant has mysteries that we are still trying to unfold.

A recent study by scientists from Canada's University of Guelph of Asian elephants that reside at Busch Gardens zoological park in Florida, revealed some new information about the pachyderm's ability to retain and dissipate heat. With an animal of this size, many of the biological processes that allow other animals, including man, to function - circulation, breathing, bone structure - often go through some adaptations. To help regulate its body temperature, it is thought that African elephants radiate excess heat through their large ears. However, the Asian elephant has noticeably smaller ears. So, as it builds up heat throughout the course of the day, how can it release that stored heat at day's end? Why through its trunk, of course.

Thermal images taken of the elephants (click here to see them online at BBC Nature) throughout the day and into the evening reveal that the Asian elephant compensates for its smaller ears by concentrating heat in its trunk. In fact, the ears are some of the coolest spots on the elephant's body.

According to study leader Dr Esther Finegan,
"As the Asian elephant ears are so much smaller in surface area, they [are] very much less effective [at heat loss] than the larger African elephants' ears. But, why African elephants do not use their trunks - as Asian elephants appear to do - is a wonderful question to which we do not yet know the answer."

So, a new study of an familiar old animal reveals heretofore unknown biological processes. And it also raises questions about pre-existing beliefs scientists held about African elephants. Once again, we continue to learn, we continue to question, we continue to re-learn.

Unfortunately, studying Asian elephants within the confines of zoos like Busch Gardens may someday prove to be the only way we can learn anything about these huge beasts. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the number of Sumatran elephants in the wilds of Indonesia have reached critically low levels and face a greater risk of extinction than ever before.

Pressured by a growing loss of jungle habitat to deforestation, it is estimated that there are only 2,400 to 2,800 Sumatran elephants in the wild - a reduction by 50% from a count taken in 1985. That's a population cut in half in just 25 years.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has now raised the Sumatran elephant's listing from "endangered" to "critically endangered" which puts it on the IUCN's Red List. The Indonesian government has been trying to limit forest development - deforestation has been replacing forest in favor of palm oil plantations - but the government has seen limited success. It is now considering a new approach using financial incentives.

"The government has recently allowed companies to have restoration areas instead of logging concessions for some remaining forest area, so those kind of initiatives can be done by companies where they can also still make profit and at the same time also have the recovery of the endangered species," said a representative of the World Wildlife Fund told Voice of America.

How unfortunate it is that, on the one hand, we are still learning about an animal that has roamed the earth for thousands of years, long before the dawn of man, while at the same time we may be witnessing its extinction in the wild - and that passing will be of our making. Whales, sharks, and other ocean creatures are not the only species at risk.

And we called the elephant Dumbo?

Source: BBC Nature
Source: Voice of America

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