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Elephant watching
The Back Forty
By Roger Pond

Talk about an elephant in the living room. Here’s a piece of research proving that biologists can ignore the obvious as well as anyone.

A news report says research biologists in Kenya have found they can keep track of a herd of elephants by analyzing the animals’ tail hair. These scientists say they can determine where and what elephants have been eating by the ratios of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in their hair.

The herd of seven elephants is also fitted with radio collars and tracked with global positioning systems. That makes it easier to find their tails when they need to be analyzed.

I think we should stop and ask, “Who else but a biologist would come up with a scheme like that?”

These are elephants for heavens sake. It’s not like you can’t see them. If we go down to the water hole we can probably find their tracks - and some stuff that would tell us exactly what they’ve been eating.

If a biologist wants to know where seven elephants have been spending their time, he could ask the villagers. The natives would say, “Well yesterday the elephants were over at Boonesville, stomping the sap out of a banana tree.”

There has to be an easier way than collecting tail hairs. I suppose they give that job to the graduate students.

The whole thing reminds me of working with my brothers when I was a kid. My older brother, Dick, bought the cows and machinery from my dad and took over the farm when I was about 14. My little brother, Merlin, was 8 or 9 and just old enough to start driving tractors.

Merlin was a good tractor driver, but nine years old is pretty young; and my little brother was always suspicious that Dick and I were giving him the bad jobs.

Dick would say, “I’ve got the John Deere hooked-up to the disc and harrow, Merlin. I need you to go out and finish working the 20 acres we plowed Saturday.”

Merlin would think about that for a second and then ask, “What are you gonna be doing?”

Dick would explain that he would be milking cows for a couple more hours, and then he needed to get the corn planter out of the shed and get it ready to go. That generally satisfied Merlin, and he’d head out to the field.

I can imagine an elephant researcher telling his graduate student, “O.K. Charles, I want you to take these test tubes and the GPS out and find those seven elephants. Then, I want you to sneak up behind each one and pull two hairs out of its tail.

“Put the hairs in the tube with that elephant’s name on it and bring the tubes to the lab so we can analyze the hairs.

“We’ve got extra large tubes this time, because it’s hard to stuff hair in the smaller ones when you’re running so fast. Watch out for the leopards. Running seems to excite them.

Then the graduate student peers through his wire-rimmed glasses and asks, “And what are you going to be doing?”

This farm news was published in the February 8, 2006 issue of Farm World.