1 Tahrcountry Musings: The Tale of the elephant from the Tail

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Tale of the elephant from the Tail

I was fascinated to read about this new technique developed by Professor Thure Cerling and associates to decode eating habits of the elephants from its tail. It is amazing. Professor Thure Cerling used Global Positioning System and analyzed carbon and other isotopes in the tail hair of elephants to monitor their movements and varied diet in the Buffalo Springs national reserves in northern Kenya.

Clear cut evidences of elephants gorging on grasses during rainy season and switching over to trees and shrubs emerged from the isotope based study of elephants ‘ tail.
There are enough reasons for the elephants to gorge on grass. This is a ploy intended to bulk up for pregnancy. 22 months after conceiving, the elephants gave birth to healthy babies.

Use of water also came under the scanner. According to Professor Cerling in the dry season, rivers tend to be quite evaporated and have different isotope ratios than in rainy season, when they are flowing. The elephants drink the water, and it actually changes the isotope composition of their blood, which is reflected in the isotope composition of the hair.

The research brought to the fore the impact of overgrazing by cattle on the typical wet season diet of elephants. Competition with cattle results in poor access to high-quality grass forage as the cattle keep the grass very short by its distinctive feeding habits, thus our competing elephants in the rush for prime forage.The study warns that as Kenya's population continues to explode, and as global warming brings in more droughts, the competition for grass with domestic cattle might threaten the elephants' ability to bulk up for pregnancy.

The advantage of the new method according to Professor Cerling is that we get a continuous record of elephants’ diet even though we don't have anyone on the ground watching them. This will be of great help to the mangers of wildlife in devising their strategies.

Details of the study appears in the on line edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

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