Thursday, August 22, 2013

Citizen Science, with Teens, Skype, and Elephants

The research, which appeared in April in the journal PLoS One, centered on whether elephants understood hand gestures from humans. But by including the young people in the study, Joshua Plotnik, the lead researcher, was essentially conducting an experiment within an experiment: Can young students, with their fresh eyes and questioning minds, help unlock the inner workings of the elephant mind?

“A 12-year-old kid is inquisitive, motivated, enthusiastic and extremely impressionable,” Mr. Plotnik said in an interview in Thailand, where he is a lecturer at Mahidol University and is helping design after-school activities for Thai students on elephant conservation. “They can think about it from simple but important ways.”
Mr. Plotnik and the students devised a number of experiments on elephant behavior. The one that led to the published article involved seven captive elephants in northern Thailand who were shown two buckets, only one of which contained food. Mr. Plotnik or the elephant’s handler, known as a mahout, stood behind the buckets, pointing to the one with food.

Mr. Plotnik filmed the experiments and sent video to the students in New York, who analyzed and suggested refinements. He would also communicate with the group periodically via Skype to discuss the research.

“I’m not going to say that middle schoolers had the most influence on how the experiment ended up,” said Dannah Seecoomar, who was in the sixth grade when the project started. “But we were able to make a contribution. It’s always a great feeling to know that you’re involved in something bigger than yourself.”
Recent research suggests that domesticated species – due to artificial selection by humans for specific, preferred behavioral traits – are better than wild animals at responding to visual cues given by humans about the location of hidden food. \Although this seems to be supported by studies on a range of domesticated (including dogs, goats and horses) and wild (including wolves and chimpanzees) animals, there is also evidence that exposure to humans positively influences the ability of both wild and domesticated animals to follow these same cues. Here, we test the performance of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) on an object choice task that provides them with visual-only cues given by humans about the location of hidden food. Captive elephants are interesting candidates for investigating how both domestication and human exposure may impact cue-following as they represent a non-domesticated species with almost constant human interaction. As a group, the elephants (n = 7) in our study were unable to follow pointing, body orientation or a combination of both as honest signals of food location. They were, however, able to follow vocal commands with which they were already familiar in a novel context, suggesting the elephants are able to follow cues if they are sufficiently salient. Although the elephants’ inability to follow the visual cues provides partial support for the domestication hypothesis, an alternative explanation is that elephants may rely more heavily on other sensory modalities, specifically olfaction and audition. Further research will be needed to rule out this alternative explanation.

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