Wednesday, December 5, 2007

More divine petz

list blogging=divine petz photography.

"Elephants pee to keep in touch with family"

After a phenomenally SHITTY day... that headline made me smile.

By Roger Highfield
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 05/12/2007

They have a reputation for never forgetting. Now an experiment has shown that even when members of an African elephant family are out of sight, they are far from being out of mind.

Dr Lucy Bates collects an elephant
urine sample

Elephants keep tabs on their family members with the help of urine, according to a study led by Prof Richard Byrne of the University of St Andrews that is a testament to how the creatures not only have good memories but update them too to keep abreast of what their relatives are up to.

Using a clever experiment, reported today in the journal Biology Letters, they show that African elephants keep track of 17 females from their group, and possibly up to 30 family members.

They presented samples of urine from female members of the family to other group members and found the elephants "showed surprise" - reaching out with their trunks to investigate - when they encountered urine from an individual who was actually walking behind them and so could not possibly have urinated there.

Urine from unrelated elephants left them unmoved but they also showed a lot of interest when the urine was from a family member who was far away, said Dr Lucy Bates, team member, who presented urine to 36 family groups of elephants earlier this year.

"The cliche is that elephants have big memories and we wanted to find out what they used them for," she says. "They are keeping track of their family members."

Elephants may find the smell of
urine comforting

Elephants do not mark territories but "they pee quite often and when they pee they pee a lot. I never had any trouble in finding two litres worth," she said.

While the elephant may find the smell comforting, to a human nose, "it is gross." Beyond that, she was not able to distinguish the urine of different elephants. "They all smell foul."

While several animal species have been shown to identify individuals from the scent of urine, this is the first time such an ability has been discovered in elephants.

Professor Byrne explains: "It's hard enough for us humans trying to keep tabs on each other when there's only four or five family or friends out shopping together. Imagine if there were 20 or 30 of you, and not a mobile phone between the lot. For elephants, which typically travel in family groups of that size, the problem is even harder because their day vision is not good. Worse, groups shift in composition from week to week, and individuals don't walk in a fixed order."

The study was done in Kenya with the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, with Katito Sayialel, Norah Njiraini, Dr Joyce Poole and Cynthia Moss, and underlines how the animals have a real society.

Prof Byrne adds:"For most tourists visiting Africa, the least exciting thing about seeing elephants is when they stop to urinate. Yet for the elephants themselves, those urine deposits help them keep constant track of up to 30 other individuals in their large and frequently changing family groups: a memory feat which we can only admire."

Earlier work has shown that elephants, like humans, show compassion after a death of one of their own species, care about other elephants in distress and have a strong interest in the dead - and not only for their immediate kin.