Let’s name 2016 as the year of the elephant

How the genome of the Asian elephant relates to many of its unusual (often charming) properties is an exciting area of research.

Updated - December 28, 2015 02:27 pm IST

Published - December 27, 2015 05:00 pm IST

;The mother elephant returning to the forest with its newborn calf near Kurudimalai at the outskirts of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu

;The mother elephant returning to the forest with its newborn calf near Kurudimalai at the outskirts of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu

In the Chinese tradition, 2015-2016 is the year of the ram or sheep. In a Hindu calendar, it is called Manmada . But, I would like to call the coming year 2016 as the Year of the Elephant, in honour of what all we have learnt about elephants up until the end of the year 2015. It was in early 2015 that Dr. V. J. Lynch and co-workers published the genome analysis of the Asian elephant, relating it to the great woolly mammoth ( Cell Rep. 2015, 12, 217-228). And just over three weeks ago in December 2015, a collaborative research project on the sequence of the genome of the Asian elephant and how many of the genes there are transcribed was published by colleagues from the IISER Pune (led by Dr Sanjeev Galande) and IISc Bangalore (Prof. R. Sukumar) in the Journal of Biosciences . They found 181 proteins unique to the Asian elephant and 103 novel RNA transcripts.

And at about the same time, two groups from the U.S. (that of Dr. Schiffman of the University of Utah and Dr. Lynch of the University of Chicago) reported that while we humans have just one copy of the tumour-fighting gene p53, the elephant has as many as 20 of them. Thus, elephants are far more resistant to cancer than we are (for a nice review, read B. Sandhya Rani at www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/109/11/1923.pdf).

How the genome of the Asian elephant relates to many of its unusual (often charming) properties is an exciting area of research. Elephant experts such as Professor R. Sukumar (IISc Bangalore) and his colleague Dr. T. N. C. Vidya (JNCASR Bangalore) have been studying elephants in the Nilgiris and in the Nagarhole-Bandipur National Parks of Karnataka. Their focus has been to understand how the ecology and environmental factors relate to the behaviour of elephants both as individuals and as groups. Towards this, they have been spending years doing so. It is not for nothing that Sukumar is known as the Yaanai Doctor among the locals of the region.

That the elephant is a very clever and innovative animal has been known since very long. Folklore, poems and stories from various parts of India, takes from the P anchatantra and some Puranas , and actual observational records from scientists like Sukumar, Vidya and others elsewhere point out not only the innate intelligence of elephants, but innovation- or thinking on the move – by them.

That they recognize themselves (just as primates do) when a mirror is shown to them is well known. An entertaining and educative example can be watched by accessing on the web the site http://www.ncbi.nlm. nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1636577/, and watching Figures 1 and 2 there.

Tool making and using materials around for a chosen purpose is not only an example of cognitive ability but also of innovation. Primates such as chimpanzees — our closest relatives — are known to design and use tools, and even choose plants for use as medicines. That elephants too are tool makers and users can be seen in two examples we give below.

See how an elephant uses a stick nearby to hit at food on a tree here:

Likewise, see how an elephant uses a tyre nearby to step on and reach for food at

These examples make it amply clear how clever and innovative (creative) elephants are. But what Dr. Vidya reports in her research paper last year “Novel behaviour shown by an Asian elephant in the context of allomothering”, published in Acta Ethologica , 17: 123-127, 2014, is something so remarkable and enchanting that raises the level of esteem that we have for elephants. It shows how the young female elephant Genette (yes, Vidya recognizes each individual in the group and given names to them), who is not yet mature to conceive or lactate, offers her trunk to a baby not her own but of her friend Dana. This baby is restless, looking for sucking but Dana is busy otherwise. The baby is insistent and now starts bothering Genette nearby, trying to suck her yet to fully form nipples. Genette first shooed off the baby, who does not give up. She now did something remarkable. She offered her trunk to the baby, who begins sucking the trunk tip, and gets comforted — an elephantine version of thumb-sucking that our human babies do!

This happened several times wherein Genette nursed or “allomothered” (‘allo’ meaning not one’s own, or ‘auto’) the baby elephant, thus comforting someone else’s baby. Dr. Vidya cautiously suggests that here is an example showing that elephants have a theory of mind and empathy. She also suggests that tasks relating to the use of the trunk may be useful in examining cognition in elephants. Pity that Dr Vidya’s paper above is not published in an open-access journal.

D. Balasubramanian


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