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Concept: Elephant


The current study provides details of sleep (or inactivity) in two wild, free-roaming African elephant matriarchs studied in their natural habitat with remote monitoring using an actiwatch subcutaneously implanted in the trunk, a standard elephant collar equipped with a GPS system and gyroscope, and a portable weather station. We found that these two elephants were polyphasic sleepers, had an average daily total sleep time of 2 h, mostly between 02:00 and 06:00, and displayed the shortest daily sleep time of any mammal recorded to date. Moreover, these two elephants exhibited both standing and recumbent sleep, but only exhibited recumbent sleep every third or fourth day, potentially limiting their ability to enter REM sleep on a daily basis. In addition, we observed on five occasions that the elephants went without sleep for up to 46 h and traversed around 30 km in 10 h, possibly due to disturbances such as potential predation or poaching events, or a bull elephant in musth. They exhibited no form of sleep rebound following a night without sleep. Environmental conditions, especially ambient air temperature and relative humidity, analysed as wet-bulb globe temperature, reliably predict sleep onset and offset times. The elephants selected novel sleep sites each night and the amount of activity between sleep periods did not affect the amount of sleep. A number of similarities and differences to studies of elephant sleep in captivity are noted, and specific factors shaping sleep architecture in elephants, on various temporal scales, are discussed.

Concepts: Sleep, Mammal, Relative humidity, Lion, Hunting, Elephant, Elephants, Musth


African forest elephants- taxonomically and functionally unique-are being poached at accelerating rates, but we lack range-wide information on the repercussions. Analysis of the largest survey dataset ever assembled for forest elephants (80 foot-surveys; covering 13,000 km; 91,600 person-days of fieldwork) revealed that population size declined by ca. 62% between 2002-2011, and the taxon lost 30% of its geographical range. The population is now less than 10% of its potential size, occupying less than 25% of its potential range. High human population density, hunting intensity, absence of law enforcement, poor governance, and proximity to expanding infrastructure are the strongest predictors of decline. To save the remaining African forest elephants, illegal poaching for ivory and encroachment into core elephant habitat must be stopped. In addition, the international demand for ivory, which fuels illegal trade, must be dramatically reduced.

Concepts: Africa, Demography, Population, Population density, Hunting, Elephant, African Bush Elephant, African Forest Elephant


The idea that low surface densities of hairs could be a heat loss mechanism is understood in engineering and has been postulated in some thermal studies of animals. However, its biological implications, both for thermoregulation as well as for the evolution of epidermal structures, have not yet been noted. Since early epidermal structures are poorly preserved in the fossil record, we study modern elephants to infer not only the heat transfer effect of present-day sparse hair, but also its potential evolutionary origins. Here we use a combination of theoretical and empirical approaches, and a range of hair densities determined from photographs, to test whether sparse hairs increase convective heat loss from elephant skin, thus serving an intentional evolutionary purpose. Our conclusion is that elephants are covered with hair that significantly enhances their thermoregulation ability by over 5% under all scenarios considered, and by up to 23% at low wind speeds where their thermoregulation needs are greatest. The broader biological significance of this finding suggests that maintaining a low-density hair cover can be evolutionary purposeful and beneficial, which is consistent with the fact that elephants have the greatest need for heat loss of any modern terrestrial animal because of their high body-volume to skin-surface ratio. Elephant hair is the first documented example in nature where increasing heat transfer due to a low hair density covering may be a desirable effect, and therefore raises the possibility of such a covering for similarly sized animals in the past. This elephant example dispels the widely-held assumption that in modern endotherms body hair functions exclusively as an insulator and could therefore be a first step to resolving the prior paradox of why hair was able to evolve in a world much warmer than our own.

Concepts: Evolution, Temperature, Heat, Convection, Heat transfer, Hair, Elephant, Paleontology


Megaherbivores (>1000 kg) are critical for ecosystem health and function, but face population collapse and extinction globally. The future of these megaherbivore-impoverished ecosystems is difficult to predict, though many studies have demonstrated increasing representation of C3 woody plants. These studies rely on direct observational data, however, and tools for assessing decadal-scale changes in African ecology without observation are lacking. We use isotopic records of historical common hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) canines to quantify herbaceous vegetation change in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda following a period of civil unrest and poaching. This poaching event led to population collapse of two threatened African megaherbivore species: hippopotamus and African elephants (Loxodonta africana). Serial carbon isotope ratios (δ(13)C) in canine enamel from individuals that lived between 1960-2000 indicated substantial increases in C3 herbaceous plants in their diet (<20% C3 in the 1960s to 30-45% C3 in the 80s and 90s), supported by other observational and ecological data. These data indicate megaherbivore loss results in succession of both woody and herbaceous C3 vegetation and further reaching effects, such as decreased grazing capacity and herbivore biodiversity in the area. Given multiple lines of evidence, these individuals appear to accurately capture herbaceous vegetation change in Mweya.

Concepts: Ecology, Elephant, Hippopotamus, Perennial plant, Megafauna, Herbaceous plant


White rhinoceros (rhinos) is a keystone conservation species and also provides revenue for protection agencies. Restoring or mimicking the outcomes of impeded ecological processes allows reconciliation of biodiversity and financial objectives. We evaluate the consequences of white rhino management removal, and in recent times, poaching, on population persistence, regional conservation outcomes and opportunities for revenue generation. In Kruger National Park, white rhinos increased from 1998 to 2008. Since then the population may vary non-directionally. In 2010, we estimated 10,621 (95% CI: 8,767-12,682) white rhinos using three different population estimation methods. The desired management effect of a varying population was detectable after 2008. Age and sex structures in sink areas (focal rhino capture areas) were different from elsewhere. This comes from relatively more sub-adults being removed by managers than what the standing age distribution defined. Poachers in turn focused on more adults in 2011. Although the effect of poaching was not detectable at the population level given the confidence intervals of estimates, managers accommodated expected poaching annually and adapted management removals. The present poaching trend predicts that 432 white rhinos may be poached in Kruger during 2012. The white rhino management model mimicking outcomes of impeded ecological processes predicts 397 rhino management removals are required. At present poachers may be doing “management removals,” but conservationists have no opportunity left to contribute to regional rhino conservation strategies or generate revenue through white rhino sales. In addition, continued trends in poaching predict detectable white rhino declines in Kruger National Park by 2016. Our results suggest that conservationists need innovative approaches that reduce financial incentives to curb the threats that poaching poses to several conservation values of natural resources such as white rhinos.

Concepts: Ecology, Elephant, Rhinoceros, White Rhinoceros, Black Rhinoceros, International Rhino Foundation, Northern White Rhinoceros, Terry Gerin


The approximately 300 (298, 95% CI: 152-581) elephants in the Lower Kinabatangan Managed Elephant Range in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo are a priority sub-population for Borneo’s total elephant population (2,040, 95% CI: 1,184-3,652). Habitat loss and human-elephant conflict are recognized as the major threats to Bornean elephant survival. In the Kinabatangan region, human settlements and agricultural development for oil palm drive an intense fragmentation process. Electric fences guard against elephant crop raiding but also remove access to suitable habitat patches. We conducted expert opinion-based least-cost analyses, to model the quantity and configuration of available suitable elephant habitat in the Lower Kinabatangan, and called this the Elephant Habitat Linkage. At 184 km(2), our estimate of available habitat is 54% smaller than the estimate used in the State’s Elephant Action Plan for the Lower Kinabatangan Managed Elephant Range (400 km(2)). During high flood levels, available habitat is reduced to only 61 km(2). As a consequence, short-term elephant densities are likely to surge during floods to 4.83 km(-2) (95% CI: 2.46-9.41), among the highest estimated for forest-dwelling elephants in Asia or Africa. During severe floods, the configuration of remaining elephant habitat and the surge in elephant density may put two villages at elevated risk of human-elephant conflict. Lower Kinabatangan elephants are vulnerable to the natural disturbance regime of the river due to their limited dispersal options. Twenty bottlenecks less than one km wide throughout the Elephant Habitat Linkage, have the potential to further reduce access to suitable habitat. Rebuilding landscape connectivity to isolated habitat patches and to the North Kinabatangan Managed Elephant Range (less than 35 km inland) are conservation priorities that would increase the quantity of available habitat, and may work as a mechanism to allow population release, lower elephant density, reduce human-elephant conflict, and enable genetic mixing.

Concepts: Borneo, Hunting, Elephant, Al-Fil, Malaysia, Asian Elephant, Elephants, Sabah


The capacity to recognise oneself as separate from other individuals and objects is difficult to investigate in non-human animals. The hallmark empirical assessment, the mirror self-recognition test, focuses on an animal’s ability to recognise itself in a mirror and success has thus far been demonstrated in only a small number of species with a keen interest in their own visual reflection. Adapting a recent study done with children, we designed a new body-awareness paradigm for testing an animal’s understanding of its place in its environment. In this task, Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) were required to step onto a mat and pick up a stick attached to it by rope, and then pass the stick forward to an experimenter. In order to do the latter, the elephants had to see their body as an obstacle to success and first remove their weight from the mat before attempting to transfer the stick. The elephants got off the mat in the test significantly more often than in controls, where getting off the mat was unnecessary. This task helps level the playing field for non-visual species tested on cognition tasks and may help better define the continuum on which body- and self-awareness lie.

Concepts: Mammal, Elephant, Asian Elephant, Elephas, Elephantidae, Sri Lankan Elephant, Elephants, Mirror test


Savannas once constituted the range of many species that human encroachment has now reduced to a fraction of their former distribution. Many survive only in protected areas. Poaching reduces the savanna elephant, even where protected, likely to the detriment of savanna ecosystems. While resources go into estimating elephant populations, an ecological benchmark by which to assess counts is lacking. Knowing how many elephants there are and how many poachers kill is important, but on their own, such data lack context. We collated savanna elephant count data from 73 protected areas across the continent estimated to hold ~50% of Africa’s elephants and extracted densities from 18 broadly stable population time series. We modeled these densities using primary productivity, water availability, and an index of poaching as predictors. We then used the model to predict stable densities given current conditions and poaching for all 73 populations. Next, to generate ecological benchmarks, we predicted such densities for a scenario of zero poaching. Where historical data are available, they corroborate or exceed benchmarks. According to recent counts, collectively, the 73 savanna elephant populations are at 75% of the size predicted based on current conditions and poaching levels. However, populations are at <25% of ecological benchmarks given a scenario of zero poaching (~967,000)-a total deficit of ~730,000 elephants. Populations in 30% of the 73 protected areas were <5% of their benchmarks, and the median current density as a percentage of ecological benchmark across protected areas was just 13%. The ecological context provided by these benchmark values, in conjunction with ongoing census projects, allow efficient targeting of conservation efforts.

Concepts: Density, Prediction, Ecosystem, Population density, Hunting, Elephant, Elephants, Savanna


Illegal wildlife trade has reached alarming levels globally, extirpating populations of commercially valuable species. As a driver of biodiversity loss, quantifying illegal harvest is essential for conservation and sociopolitical affairs but notoriously difficult. Here we combine field-based carcass monitoring with fine-scale demographic data from an intensively studied wild African elephant population in Samburu, Kenya, to partition mortality into natural and illegal causes. We then expand our analytical framework to model illegal killing rates and population trends of elephants at regional and continental scales using carcass data collected by a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species program. At the intensively monitored site, illegal killing increased markedly after 2008 and was correlated strongly with the local black market ivory price and increased seizures of ivory destined for China. More broadly, results from application to continental data indicated illegal killing levels were unsustainable for the species between 2010 and 2012, peaking to ∼8% in 2011 which extrapolates to ∼40,000 elephants illegally killed and a probable species reduction of ∼3% that year. Preliminary data from 2013 indicate overharvesting continued. In contrast to the rest of Africa, our analysis corroborates that Central African forest elephants experienced decline throughout the last decade. These results provide the most comprehensive assessment of illegal ivory harvest to date and confirm that current ivory consumption is not sustainable. Further, our approach provides a powerful basis to determine cryptic mortality and gain understanding of the demography of at-risk species.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Demography, Endangered species, Elephant, Asian Elephant, Elephants, Ivory, African Bush Elephant


Carbon-14 measurements on 231 elephant ivory specimens from 14 large ivory seizures (≥0.5 ton) made between 2002 and 2014 show that most ivory (ca 90%) was derived from animals that had died less than 3 y before ivory was confiscated. This indicates that the assumption of recent elephant death for mortality estimates of African elephants is correct: Very little “old” ivory is included in large ivory shipments from Africa. We found only one specimen of the 231 analyzed to have a lag time longer than 6 y. Patterns of trade differ by regions: East African ivory, based on genetic assignments of geographic origin, has a much higher fraction of “rapid” transit than ivory originating in the Tridom region of Cameroon-Gabon-Congo. Carbon-14 is an important tool in understanding patterns of movement of illegal wildlife products.

Concepts: Elephant, Asian Elephant, Elephants, Radiocarbon dating, Carbon-14, Ivory, African Bush Elephant