Brushes with Culture

This is a space where I can reflect on the many fascinating things that I experience. Some of the things I brush with are Culture with a capital C. Others are just intriguing moments. Sometimes I am brushing with these moments in a hurry. This is a chance to relive those moments in tranquility. These are the stories I tell myself in those quieter moments.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Elephants as you've never Known them

Two pieces of elephant news recently. The first is a learned paper, Self-recognition in an Asian elephant by Joshua M. Plotnik, Frans B. M. de Waal and Diana Reiss. This is part of the abstract:

Considered an indicator of self-awareness, mirror self-recognition (MSR) has long seemed limited to humans and apes. ...MSR is thought to correlate with higher forms of empathy and altruistic behavior. Apart from humans and apes, dolphins and elephants are also known for such capacities. After the recent discovery of MSR in dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), elephants thus were the next logical candidate species. We exposed three Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) to a large mirror to investigate their responses. Animals that possess MSR typically progress through four stages of behavior when facing a mirror: (i) social responses, (ii) physical inspection (e.g., looking behind the mirror), (iii) repetitive mirror-testing behavior, and (iv) realization of seeing themselves. Visible marks and invisible sham-marks were applied to the elephants' heads to test whether they would pass the litmus "mark test" for MSR in which an individual spontaneously uses a mirror to touch an otherwise imperceptible mark on its own body. Here, we report a successful MSR elephant study and report striking parallels in the progression of responses to mirrors among apes, dolphins, and elephants. These parallels suggest convergent cognitive evolution most likely related to complex sociality and cooperation.

Wow. Perhaps, more accurately, elephants as they've never known themselves...

(The picture above on the left, by the way, is of an elephant in India that stood patiently while we sat in an intensely aromatic enclosure with it and sharpened our charcoal on our pads. One of the best mornings of my life, I think. Though doesn't he look like a giant squid?)

And if that weren't enough, they've been tormenting pregnant elephants for pictures of their 'iccle ones. Elephant mothers were trained to sit next to the scanners, and cameras were stuffed up their wombs to take these pictures.

Were the resulting images not so amazing, I'd not be putting them up here. It must have been uncomfortable and undignified. (Perhaps like other mothers of young stars.)

But all credit to the guys making In the Womb: Animals, at Pioneer Productions. It's going out on the National Geographic Channel this weekend, then Channel 4 over Christmas, which is good as I'll be home by then. *Be aware that the weblink above has a truly excruciating talk-over. That in itself could merit an entry here, but not such a benevolent one.*


At 1:20 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, but where does the lighting come from in these pictures? :)

Hope you're having a good time in the Antipodes. xx


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