Blog post by Leah Wersebe
As a Master’s student in Dr. Plotnik’s lab, I am one of several students who are spending the pandemic of 2020 in their homes and apartments, and analyzing videos of wild Asian elephants in Thailand’s Western Forest Complex (WEFCOM).
In the CCC lab, Dr. Plotnik is conducting a long-term study focused on a population of wild Asian elephants in WEFCOM. It’s not typical to be conducting such a large experiment on wild elephants with video camera traps. Usually, scientists aren’t looking at the behavior of wild populations on this scale. They typically use camera traps that gather still pictures and are focused on population numbers, range, foraging territory, etc so it is a unique opportunity to be a part of this kind of experiment.
Students in the lab are analyzing the footage for data on behavior, demographics, elephant body/health condition, location and proximity to conspecifics and humans, and individual identification. Several students in the lab analyze the videos, code for all of the data mentioned, and then share our data with each other so we all have larger data sets when writing papers on our own topic.
My Master’s thesis topic is focused on the population’s demographics. We want to determine if there are demographic differences between the elephants that spend their time in a protected area and those that spend their time in crop fields outside the protected area. When I first started looking into Asian elephant demographics and how scientists determine the age and sex of an elephant, I learned that there was very little formal research done on the topic. Any guidelines that are used to age and sex an Asian elephant are based on one of three things: anectodal evidence from experts who consistently work with Asian elephants; research on African elephants; or general aging protocol used for all ungulates. This presented an opportunity for us in the lab. We can develop protocol, based on research, on how to sex and age Asian elephants.
As I write this, a global pandemic is causing some disruption to plans that were put into place to further pursue the topics mentioned above. I was planning to travel to Thailand to take pictures of 50-100 captive elephants and measure footprint circumferences of wild elephants in WEFCOM. An Asian elephant foot circumference is approximately equivalent to half the shoulder height of an individual. This research would have been used in my Master’s thesis and possible even future journal articles. For now, travel plans are indefinitely on hold. The good news is that even if we are unable to gather this research in the near future, there is still copious amounts of data to analyze from the video camera traps. So you can find many CCC lab members at home with their laptops looking at elephants for the next few months!