ATE’ has made many important contributions to elephant research over the years. The knowledge gained from our team has profoundly altered the way we think about, conserve, and manage elephant populations. Our research has highlighted the ethical implications of dealing with sentient, long-lived, intelligent and socially complex animals. Our knowledge base provides powerful and authoritative support to elephant conservation and advocacy campaigns worldwide. For almost five decades ATE’s presence has helped ensure the survival of the elephants as well as the Amboseli ecosystem.
ATE research covers many areas including: social organisation, behaviour, demography, ecological dynamics, spatial analyses and mapping, communication, genetics, human-elephant interactions and cognition. Our long-term datasets underpin all these research topics.
Our team of Kenyan research assistants and visiting scientists are in the field every day gathering information about the elephant population; births and deaths, musth, oestrus and mating. Our routine daily observations note associations between family units and independent males, geographic location, group size, composition, activity and habitat type. Within families we monitor female affiliation and the dispersal of young males from their family to analyze family dynamics. We have systematically monitored the body size and growth of over 600 individuals from 1976 to the present. Since 1999 we have collected dung samples for genetic analyses of population origins, paternity and within- and between-family relatedness. We are constantly maintaining and updating our individual records, and we also carry out basic ecological monitoring through vegetation plots, water table measurements and rainfall.
ATE hosts visiting researchers who contribute to the growing understanding of African elephants in general, and the knowledge base for the sustained future of the Amboseli population in particular. ATE has always enjoyed a dynamic collaboration network and we welcome the opportunity for new partnerships to continue that tradition.Researchers interested in collaborating with ATE should address their enquiries to our Director of Science, Prof. Phyllis Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Our collaborations extend across many subject areas:
Communication is the glue that binds the social network of an intelligent species. Joyce Poole and Petter Granli recorded and analyzed Amboseli elephant vocalizations as part of the work of their NGO Elephant Voices. Their aim is to build our scientific understanding of the intelligence and social complexity of elephants and enhance the toolbox for their conservation and management. At the same time they act as a voice for elephants in a strong advocacy component.
Other communication studies have focused on elephants’ capacity for individual recognition: Karen McComb pioneered the playback approach and demonstrated that each female elephant recognizes around 100 other females by voice alone.
Ongoing studies provide vital information on how elephants grow, mature and learn to cope with their physical and social environments. This work, guided by Phyllis Lee asks how longevity and developmental processes contribute to fitness and reproductive success. The decades-long Amboseli dataset is now yielding exciting insights into these questions; Phyllis’ work has recently demonstrated that early life experiences have survival and fitness consequences across individual lifetimes. The role of old, experienced females in guiding family decisions has become apparent: families with older matriarchs have improved calf survival and shorter inter-birth intervals for all females in the family. An extreme drought event in 2009 caused the death of many of these important leaders. Vicki Fishlock’s work, assessing the social and reproductive effects of these losses in the medium-term. As a result we are developing further studies into what leadership and negotiation means for elephant families.
ATE is bringing its specialized knowledge of elephant behavior and society to bear on developing conflict-reduction strategies that are consistent with rural agriculture and Maasai livestock husbandry (see also Community Outreach). Work by KadzoKangwana, Christy Browne-Nunez, Patrick Chiyo and Winnie Kiiru has guided and developed our approach to conflict and coexistence. In our work with Amboseli Ecosystem Trust, Vicki Fishlock has been developing coexistence protocols to shape the human-wildlife interface and management strategies in Amboseli.
Scientists from Duke University have mapped DNA profiles in order to define family relationships and origins of the Amboseli population. Cross-referenced to behavioral observations, the DNA analysis by Beth Archie examined survival strategies based on relatedness. Beth’s student Patrick Chiyo studied the socio-ecology of crop-raiding elephants using genetic techniques. Patrick’s work expanded to examine male association patterns and the impact of these on high risk activities such as crop-raiding.
Dick Byrne and Lucy Bates have examined elephants’ formidable reputation for memory and intelligence by investigating specific cognitive skills designed to probe elephants’ ability to manipulate and respond to their world, as well as each other. Karen McComb and Graeme Shannon have expanded Karen’s early work on elephant communication and vocal recognition into the cognitive sphere by presenting elephants with a series of acoustic “threats” via playback experiments. Their studies show that elephants can discriminate and appropriately respond to varying levels of threats from lions and from humans, and that these abilities are strongest amongst experienced (i.e. older) elephants.