After a short break, I am back with another Q&A (Happy Easter to all) and I’m dead chuffed (as the Brits put it) to feature Dr. Caitlin O’Connell, one of the world’s leading elephant scientists. I think most readers of my blog are aware of the plight of elephants, love elephants on some level and want to see them survive into the future. Read on to learn about Dr. O’s work and to see what you can do to help these amazing animals. Many thanks, Caitlin & Tim!!
1. How did you become interested in wildlife?
I grew up in rural New Jersey with a pond, stream and five acres of woods behind the
house, so I took an interest in wildlife from a very early age, where deer, raccoons and
opossums were a common residents, as well as fish, newts, salamanders, crayfish, turtles
and, my favorite, frogs! Over the years, my interest in animals grew and expanded to
horses (of course, along with many a young girls) and larger wildlife, but also the smaller
things like insects and the sounds they made at night. I ended up getting a M.S. in insect
acoustic communication and travelled to Africa with an interest in insects. Serendipity
led me to elephants.
2. Did you have a mentor or influential teacher?
Three passionate field biology mentors that paved the course of my adult career as a field
biologist were Skip Lazell, Vitor Becker and Scott Miller (who is currently at the
Smithsonian). Skip was a herpetologist and Vitor and Scott entomologists, and each
provided me with experiences that opened doors to graduate school.
3. You have produced pioneering work on the ability of elephants to detect seismo-acoustic sounds. Can you explain what this means?
When an elephant vocalizes, the sound is produced at such a high sound pressure level
(120 dB) that it couples with the ground and generates a ground-borne exact replica of
the acoustic signal that propagates at a separate rate across the surface of the ground,
much like a ripple across the surface of water. Elephants are able to detect and interpret
this signal in the ground, allowing them an additional modality for communication, with
the potential of longer propagation distances as surface waves don’t dissipate as quickly
as acoustic signals (they spread cylindrically in two dimension as opposed to three-
dimensions such that, for every doubling of distance, they only lose 3 as opposed to 6
dB), and they don’t have a physical outer limit, whereas airborne signals refract back into
the atmosphere at 10 km—i.e. Snell’s Law).
4. Your newest book, Elephant Don, deals with the lives of male elephants in your study area. Can you give us a little teaser of what the book will contain?
Male elephants can be surprisingly affectionate with each other. I describe the deep bonds
that I witnessed between individuals that I’ve been following closely for the past ten
years. Ritual is just as important to bonded male elephants as it is to human males that
belong to the same club, sport, or secret society. Even their trunk-to-mouth greeting is
akin to kissing a Mafioso don’s ring. Sometimes, there is heartbreak, while watching a
gentle individual get ostracized, and other times there is triumph, seeing a wounded
individual recover against the odds. It writing this book, I was hoping that if others could
experience how durable character is in elephants, and perhaps by providing a secret
window into their society, elephants might be appreciated all the more.
5. You also have a novel coming out (Ivory Ghosts). Can you tell us about this book?
When I worked for the Namibian government in the early 90’s, I lived in the remote
Zambezi region, working with rangers and farmers relating to elephant issues and was
struck by the dedication of rangers and conservation workers that risked their lives on a
daily basis to protect elephants from poachers. I was inspired to write a fictional account
of my experiences, as well as combining the experiences of other colleagues in other
countries into a tale that I had hoped would reach a broader audience than my nonfiction
books about elephants in an effort to spread the word about the elephant’s plight. I had
always wanted to write fiction, but the execution of this story took much longer than I
had ever anticipated. I don’t regret the journey, however!
6. Speaking of ivory, what is your opinion of the “one off” sales and increased poaching of elephants? Correlation or causation? Do you see any solution to the poaching of elephants across their range?
Elephants and their habitat need better protection. There also needs to be more awareness
about where ivory comes from.
7. Can you speak a little to the breeding state known as musth in elephants? It’s an unusual phenomenon. In your opinion, is it more related to breeding or to male dominance?
Musth is similar to rutting in antelope during the breeding season, where males enter a
phase of elevated testosterone and they fight other males for access to mates. What is
unusual about musth is that there is no set breeding season and males go into this elevated
testosterone state serially, rather than the whole population at once. The more dominant
males are able to maintain this state for longer than younger subordinate males, and they
tend to go into musth when more females are in estrus (similar to going into “heat” in
dogs). Musth is directly related to breeding and can be somewhat inversely related to
dominance. It is thought to facilitate a more diverse gene pool, a kind of turn-taking
preventing the dominant males from monopolizing access to mates.
8. In your book An Elephant’s Life, you compare a mother elephant’s temperament to that of her young (calm mothers often have calm calves, etc.). Have you seen consistency over the years in elephant personalities (meaning have you seen bold calves grown up to be bold adults and retiring calves become retiring adults, etc.)?
We see that character is durable in adults and that the character of calves born of high-
ranking females are more outgoing (particularly males).
9. Lions seem to pose the only real threat to elephants, aside from humans. Have there been any incidents of lion predation in your study population?
Certainly. Lions are opportunistic predators and will try to take down an elephant if they
can. Most vulnerable are the young males who have enough confidence to be dangerous
to their own wellbeing by putting too much distance between themselves and their
family. It would be difficult for a lion to take on a whole herd, but an individual is easy to
surround, if the pride is big enough and has enough adult males to help take down a large
animal. Fortunately I’ve not had to witness an elephant being taken down that I’ve been
following. I’m not sure I could live through such an experience without trying to
intervene. But the scientist in me would have to hold me back. I try not to think about
such scenarios. 🙂
10. Given the growing human population, do you see a future for wide-ranging elephants or will they be contained in protected areas only?
Sadly, wild places are disappearing around the world at a rapid rate. Over time it might
be an inevitability, though Namibia is one of the few countries that turns ownership of
wildlife over to communities and as such, land use choices are made with elephants in
mind. This has been very encouraging to witness over the years. But there will always be
competition between humans and elephants for resources such as space, food and
11. You and your husband started Utopia Scientific. Can you explain what this organization does and how it interacts with your research?
We started Utopia Scientific so that we could support our elephant research and science
education programs around the world. We mentor students and budding conservationists
by providing them field opportunities and research projects that help them get to the next
level. The organization allows us to bring groups of contributing volunteers with us to the
field as well as a mechanism to donate funds to support our ongoing long term elephant
12. You’re one of the rare scientists who does a great deal of out-reach to the public through your books, blogs, tv shows, etc. Is this something you consciously chose to do or did it “just happen”?
I always had an interest in getting people excited about science through creative means.
Over time, I realized that the science of my work was more accurately represented when I
wrote about it, so that motivated me to learn how to be a better creative writer…
13. What are the research questions you still want to work on?
Since elephants live as long as we do and have just as complicated a society, the
questions will be never ending!
14. What do elephants mean to you?
Elephants are the subject of my life’s work. They mean a great deal to me!
15. For people who want to support elephant research and conversation, what do you suggest?
Supporting Utopia Scientific helps further our research and elephant conservation efforts.
We also accept a small number of contributing volunteers every season. For those
interested, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org