By William Thornton The Birmingham News
Take it from an expert — an elephant never forgets.
Bob Dale is such an expert. A professor of psychology at Indiana’s Butler University, he teaches undergraduate courses in animal learning and evolutionary psychology and an honors course on elephants. He has studied elephants for 10 years, their social behavior and, among other things, their memory.
And part of his time observing the animals is being spent at the Birmingham Zoo with its three male African elephants.
“This is the only exhibit of its kind in North America, and as far as I know, in Europe,” Dale said. “So it affords an opportunity that you could only get perhaps in Africa.”
Elephants travel in female-dominated herds in the wild, with males pushed out between the ages of 10 to 15 to roam on their own. The Birmingham Zoo’s Trails of Africa exhibit has three male elephants, with a fourth expected later this summer. Zoo officials have said they hope to make the Trails exhibit a center for elephant research.
Because of this, Dale recently spent time in Birmingham getting to know 29-year-old Bulwagi and 10-year-old Callee. He already knows Ajani, the 10-year-old newcomer from the Indianapolis Zoo, as Dale has been observing him since a little more than a week after his birth.
Observation involves many things, including how elephants walk, how quickly they develop and how they act toward each other. Dale said an elephant’s social element can be more important than his physical element. For example, he hopes to observe, over time and in subsequent trips, how the younger elephants get along with the older, larger one. Will the younger elephants pick up certain behaviors? How will they communicate with each other?
The older male elephant is usually the more dominant figure in a herd, because dominance is based on weight. “Elephants can usually sort that out very quickly,” Dale said.
Elephants also engage in a form of play which helps determine the herd’s pecking order. Two elephants will push against each other, head on, finding out which is the stronger one. This indicates which elephants can be challenged and which ones should not be tangled with.
They can communicate through a sub-sonic rumble — called infrasound — that humans can’t hear but can sometimes feel. One elephant researcher compared it to the vibrations she felt standing near a church organ.
And research shows they have excellent short and long-term memories, Dale said.
“Elephants are a most wonderful species,” Dale said. “They’re social; they’re smart; they live a long time, and they’re more peaceful than humans.”