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Researcher dishes on African elephant soap opera

The first of 15 installments of the pachyderm soap opera from the wilds of Namibia appears in the New York Times' Scientist at Work blog today, introducing the major characters that will absorb the life of Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell, PhD, for the next few months. The dominant male, Greg; the upwardly mobile menace, Kevin; the gentle second-in-command, Abe; and the rising star, Keith. O'Connell-Rodwell, an instructor in the Department of Otolaryngology at Stanford's medical school, writes first about the challenges of leaving home once again from San Francisco on a major expedition, then her mind quickly returns to the drama of the elephants that she has come to know and love over 20 seasons of research in the wilds:

I'm eager to see how the dominant male, Greg, is faring and whether he is still on top of the hierarchy. I assume that after his stunning recovery last season from a nearly fatal trunk wound, he will be back again in reigning mode. But we won't really know until we get there and see how it all sorts out in the day-to-day interactions of his elephantine boys' club. Although some things stay the same, like the durability of character, there are always surprises--maybe an interloper will show up to usurp Greg's position, or maybe Malan will return to stir the dominance pot again.

O'Connell-Rodwell took off from San Francisco International Airport June 27 with fellow research and husband Tim, said a sad goodbye to her dog Frodo and was off once again to the watch the elephants of Mushara. This summer she has also been commissioned to produce a documentary for the Smithsonian Channel on male elephant society, adding a new twist to the drama.

O'Connell-Rodwell has grown a bit nostalgic about the many seasons she's spent in a bunker with binoculars watching pachyderms and learning about their abilities to communicate using their feet and the sense of vibration. I first learned about her fascinating research 2007 when I wrote in a story about one of her many published studies on the topic. I'll be an avid reader of the entries, waiting for updates on the drama. And words from the researcher on just where this work could lead her in the future:

I can't help felling somewhat nostalgic and retrospective about life choices and where I've come as a scientist. I have had an interest in the vibration sense for as long as I can remember, back to the days of catching frogs as a young girl... Now, as an instructor in the department of otolaryngology, head and neck surgery at Stanford, I continue to pursue an interest in the vibration sense in large mammals, primarily elephants and now extending to humans as well.

Photo by Max Salomon

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