How Asian elephants judge quantities by smell

Their noses can count?

  • Asian elephants often leave protected areas to feed and come into conflict with humans.
  • The elephants, it turns out, can recognize the largest quantities of food by smell.
  • This insight could lead to keeping Asian elephants out of harm's way via redirection using olfactory cues.

Asian elephants regularly leave protected areas in search of food, breaking into into human communities intent on keeping them out. People may use electrified fencing to discourage the magnificent animals in the first place, and should that fail, try to scare them off with firecrackers and gunshots. Such interactions are disturbing at best, but the Asian elephant is also highly endangered due to habitat loss and poaching. In hopes of finding a more humane solution, Joshua Plotnik of Hunter College followed a hunch, and his resulting find has just been published in PNAS — Elephants can identify the most promising nearby quantities of food by smell alone. In essence, they can count amounts of foodstuffs with their noses.

Plotnik's hunch

A failed experiment led Plotnik to his suspicion. A middle-school-student study in which he was involved sought to test if elephants could follow visual cues — humans pointing — to find food in buckets. "They couldn't," Plotnik tells Inverse, "which surprised not only me but also the elephant handlers (mahouts) in Thailand." The mahouts told him they'd assumed that elephants' habitual picking up and returning tourists' lost sandals was prompted by their own pointing out of the discarded footwear to them.

"This led me to a big turning point in my research focus," Plotnik continues. "What if the elephants weren't following the pointing cue, but were instead using their ears and nose to guide their behavior?" That elephants continually send their trunks and noses upward like periscopes to assess their surroundings suggests smell plays a significant role in their decision-making.

Image source: Starik_73/Shutterstock

This is actually an Indian elephant, but, in any event, "here's sniffing at you."

The nose counting experiments

Plotnik and his colleagues set up a series of experiments at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort in Chiang Rai, Thailand. They presented six Asian elephants with pairs of plastic buckets containing sunflower seeds — in each pair, one bucket had more seeds than the other, with a range of difference ratios. The buckets were covered, but had holes through which the smell of the seeds could escape. (The buckets were scrupulously washed out between tests to avoid lingering odors.) An elephant could choose one bucket from each pair to snack on.

The results were surprising, Plotnik tells the New York Times. "Remarkably, when we put two different quantities in the buckets, the elephants consistently chose the quantity that had more over less."

Elephants were more or less successful depending on the ratio. With larger differences between buckets, the pachyderms were more accurate. (Two especially accurate elephants, Pepsi and Phuki, were right 80% of the time.) With more subtle differences in quantities, they chose correctly only up to about half the time.

The exact mechanism by which elephants count and compare food amounts isn't yet known. Do larger quantities simply smell more? It is known that they have more genes related to smell, about 2,000, than those renowned expert sniffers, dogs, who have only about 800. (Rats come in second with 1,200.)

Peaceful management

To Plotnik, the research suggests a new approach to managing Asian elephants roaming. As he tells Inverse, "By better understanding elephants' needs in terms of habitat and resources, we can hopefully come up with better solutions to the conflict that take both human and elephant perspectives into account." Perhaps olfactory cues can more gently guide elephants to safer pastures.

Image source: worradirek/Shutterstock

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Michio Kaku: Genetic and digital immortality are within reach

Technology may soon grant us immortality, in a sense. Here's how.

  • Through the Connectome Project we may soon be able to map the pathways of the entire human brain, including memories, and create computer programs that evoke the person the digitization is stemmed from.
  • We age because errors build up in our cells — mitochondria to be exact.
  • With CRISPR technology we may soon be able to edit out errors that build up as we age, and extend the human lifespan.
Keep reading Show less

Active ingredient in Roundup found in 95% of studied beers and wines

The controversial herbicide is everywhere, apparently.

Surprising Science
  • U.S. PIRG tested 20 beers and wines, including organics, and found Roundup's active ingredient in almost all of them.
  • A jury on August 2018 awarded a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma victim $289 million in Roundup damages.
  • Bayer/Monsanto says Roundup is totally safe. Others disagree.
Keep reading Show less

Robot pizza delivery coming later this year from Domino's

The pizza giant Domino's partners with a Silicon Valley startup to start delivering pizza by robots.

Technology & Innovation
  • Domino's partnered with the Silicon Valley startup Nuro to have robot cars deliver pizza.
  • The trial run will begin in Houston later this year.
  • The robots will be half a regular car and will need to be unlocked by a PIN code.

Would you have to tip robots? You might be answering that question sooner than you think as Domino's is about to start using robots for delivering pizza. Later this year a fleet of self-driving robotic vehicles will be spreading the joy of pizza throughout the Houston area for the famous pizza manufacturer, using delivery cars made by the Silicon Valley startup Nuro.

The startup, founded by Google veterans, raised $940 million in February and has already been delivering groceries for Kroger around Houston. Partnering with the pizza juggernaut Domino's, which delivers close to 3 million pizzas a day, is another logical step for the expanding drone car business.

Kevin Vasconi of Domino's explained in a press release that they see these specially-designed robots as "a valuable partner in our autonomous vehicle journey," adding "The opportunity to bring our customers the choice of an unmanned delivery experience, and our operators an additional delivery solution during a busy store rush, is an important part of our autonomous vehicle testing."

How will they work exactly? Nuro explained in its own press release that this "opportunity to use Nuro's autonomous delivery" will be available for some of the customers who order online. Once they opt in, they'll be able to track the car via an app. When the vehicle gets to them, the customers will use a special PIN code to unlock the pizza compartment.

Nuro and its competitors Udelv and Robomart have been focusing specifically on developing such "last-mile product delivery" machines, reports Arstechnica. Their specially-made R1 vehicle is about half the size of a regular passenger car and doesn't offer any room for a driver. This makes it safer and lighter too, with less potential to cause harm in case of an accident. It also sticks to a fairly low speed of under 25 miles an hour and slams on the breaks at the first sign of trouble.

What also helps such robot cars is "geofencing" technology which confines them to a limited area surrounding the store.

For now, the cars are still tracked around the neighborhoods by human-driven vehicles, with monitors to make sure nothing goes haywire. But these "chase cars" should be phased out eventually, an important milestone in the evolution of your robot pizza drivers.

Check out how Nuro's vehicles work: