During the summer of 2017, the Elephant Listening Project (ELP) in Ithaca, New York had the pleasure of a month-long visit from Nachi Ramamurthy, a PhD student from India who is studying the vocalizations of wild Asian elephants. While here, he started a collaborative project with ELP to compare the vocalizations of Asian elephants and African forest elephants. I didn’t have the opportunity to meet Nachi because his visit coincided with the summer break, so I corresponded with him by email to ask him some questions about his work.
1) Why did you decide to visit and work with ELP?
I was greatly impressed and inspired by the work of Dr. Katy Payne. I also wanted to learn how to analyze and understand animal’s ‘sounds’ or ‘calls.’ My colleague at Kyoto University advised me to attend the sound analysis workshop conducted by the Bioacoustics Research Program. During the workshop, I got to interact with some of the eminent ELP members, including Dr. Katy Payne, who has been the role model for many young researchers in the field of animal communication. Since then, I have always been motivated to learn more from the ELP team about their research. The main motivation behind my visit to the ELP was to explore the field of animal acoustics. The diverse spectra of applied research with direct conservation implications have always captivated my attention. In addition, the scanty information on the vocal communication of Asian and African forest elephants inspired me to establish collaboration with Dr. Daniela Hedwig, ELP’s post-doctoral researcher. I strongly believe that any comparative studies between the two elephant species will not only deepen our understanding of their behaviors, but will also shed light on the evolution of proboscideans (the order to which elephants belong).
2) What specifically do you find interesting about elephants and studying them?
To be honest, I consider myself very fortunate and honored to study elephants. There is no single specific reason for appreciating elephants; in fact, everything about them fascinates me. Although many of us think that elephants live complex lives, after following and observing them in the wild (for almost seven years), I feel that they live simple lives with a very complex cognitive ability that makes their behaviors more interesting to observe and study. What really fascinates me about them is the way they respond to their surroundings, their social interactions, the care they show towards their calves, majestic personalities of males, matriarch’s decision-making abilities, their cognitive capabilities and much more. The way they alter their behaviors, for instance, based on my observations and analyses, their ability to change their call frequencies indicates that they are able to overcome and adapt to the challenges posed by humans in their increasingly depleting habitats. Their behaviors can captivate any onlookers. In a nutshell, the more I know about elephants, the little, I feel, I know about them.
3) What topics and questions are you currently researching? Have you had any interesting or surprising results?
Vocal communication in African elephants has been the subject of numerous studies. In contrast, except for a couple of studies in the wild (one from India and other from Sri Lanka), we have a very limited understanding about the vocal communication systems of Asian elephants. The majority of studies on the vocal communication of Asian elephants come from captive elephants, which may not give us the complete picture of their natural behaviors, mainly due to the artificial set-ups and lack of social interactions in captivity. Hence, I am trying to construct the vocal repertoire of wild Asian elephants by digging deep into the functional contexts and physical properties of each call that they use for communicating with their conspecifics. I am also interested in investigating whether Asian elephants have an ‘alarm’ call system like their African relatives. The study is still in the early phases. Our preliminary results show that Asian elephants do seem to modulate their calls, especially ‘rumbles’ (which have low-frequency components) when disturbed to alert their conspecifics. However, they do not seem to show any variations in other calls. In the future, we plan to perform playback experiments to understand the functional contexts of different call types in Asian elephants’ societies.
4) What is your background in the field of animal behavior?
Growing up amidst the wilderness, I always had a deep passion and affection for wild beings. I gradually became acquainted with scientific thought processes in undergraduate school when I started observing the nest-building behaviors of scaly-breasted munia (a species of finch). Following this, I started a project aimed at understanding the feeding behaviors of bats for my Master’s degree dissertation. Later I joined a long-term project studying wild Asian elephants, which gave me a platform to further my quests in understanding animal behavior in their own abode. Since then, I have been following, observing and studying one of the most intelligent animals- the elephant.
5) Does your research have any implications for elephant conservation?
The word ‘conservation’ is a complex term to address. When we talk about conserving a particular species, we need to take a holistic approach; i.e., to not just understand and gain the complete knowledge about their behavior, physiology and ecology as a whole, but also to understand how humans influence their survival and existence. The current goal of my study is to contribute towards adding information on the existing knowledge about the vocal communication of Asian elephants and their behavior in the wild condition. Human-induced threats faced by Asian elephants, such as habitat loss, give rise to negative interactions between humans and elephants which may eventually lead to the conflict. My ultimate goal is to use acoustic information to develop new techniques to tackle or reduce human-elephant conflicts (HEC) and to come up with some improved conflict mitigation policies. For instance, if we have sufficient information and understanding on how elephants communicate with each other in different contexts and in different landscapes, perhaps we can develop an early warning system to reduce HEC based on elephant vocalizations.