Thursday, July 7, 2011

The elephant in the classroom

Three Emory alumni, including Joshua Plotnik, above, are using computer technology to bring Asian elephant research into American classrooms.

By Carol Clark

In 2006, as a graduate student working in the lab of Emory biologist Frans de Waal, Joshua Plotnik showed that an elephant can recognize itself in a mirror. The discovery put pachyderms in a unique class of self-awareness shared only by some apes and dolphins.

Now Plotnik has shown that elephants can Skype – with a little help from humans. He started a foundation called Think Elephants International, which is using video-chat technology to link Asian elephants in rural Thailand with middle school students in New York City.

“We want to bring an otherwise inaccessible, lovable animal into the classroom to teach kids about conservation and animal behavior,” Plotnik says. “When I see how excited the NYC kids are on the other side of the Skype line, I realize it’s worth it.”

Currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge, Plotnik is based in Chiang Rai, Thailand, where he is further exploring the social cognition of elephants.

The Think Elephants team includes two other Emory alumni – Jen Pokorny (now a postdoc at U.C. Davis) and Christine Webb (now a graduate student at Columbia) – and Darby Proctor, a graduate student at Georgia State.

Left: Plotnik and Webb pose with Poon Larb the elephant in Thailand.

For its initial project, Think Elephants collaborated with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation and East Side Middle School in Manhattan. For the past year, a group of 12-to-14-year-old students attended after-school sessions where they learned about conservation and animal behavior research through live video sessions with the Think Elephants scientists, and once with the elephants themselves.

The middle school students helped design and interpret an actual experiment in social cognition. “We looked at how elephants respond to visual cues given by a human about the location of hidden food,” Plotnik says. “The work of Brian Hare at Duke University suggests that dogs do respond to human visual cues about the location of food, but chimpanzees do not. Hare suggests this is possibly the result of domestication. We wanted to test elephants, which are not domesticated, but in Asia often have a very close relationship with human caregivers.”

The students brought a fresh perspective to the work. “Because I’m around elephants all day, it’s difficult for me to see some of the potential issues that na├»ve observers pick up,” Plotnik says. “These kids came up with some of the test conditions on their own, and were able to provide important insights into the interpretation of our results.”
Students at East Side Middle School in Manhattan do their best elephant impersonations, as Plotnik joins them from Thailand via Skype.

The middle school students will also help author the paper that the researchers submit for publication. One finding is that elephants may be using different human cues than domesticated dogs. “This make sense in light of the fact that elephants gather much of their social information from olfactory and acoustic cues, rather than visual ones,” Plotnik says.

The Asian elephant is an endangered species, native to Southeast Asia.

“Our ultimate goal is to link American schools with Thai schools, so that both groups of children can work together on research and conservation programs,” Plotnik says. “American kids can be an integral part of raising awareness about endangered species, but it is the next generation of conservationists within range countries like Thailand that are the most important to educate.”

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