Fairfield Now - Summer 2008
Scientist discovers seismic connections between the mini and mammoth
By Kate Campbell
Dr. O'Connell-Rodwell '87 at her field site at Mushara waterhole. Etosha National Park, Namibia. The three bulls in the background are residents of a large bull social network in the region.
Ecologist Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell '87 is living the career of her dreams. Her remarkable discovery about seismic communication in elephants reflects the patience, persistence, and daring that have taken her from Fairfield's Bannow Science Center labs to the scrub deserts of Namibia.
Dr. O'Connell-Rodwell was specializing in the behavior of the tiny, Hawaiian plant hopper, a sap-sucking insect, when the scale of her research suddenly became, well, elephantine. While vacationing in Africa in 1992, she was offered a plum assignment from Namibia's Ministry of Wildlife and Tourism: study elephants for three years and help local farmers find a way to keep them from raiding their crops. She and her husband, epidemiologist Timothy Rodwell, jumped at the challenge. Turns out, her focus on seismic communication in insects would inform her studies of the largest land mammal on earth and ultimately redefine her career. She's proven elephants can detect sound waves vibrating through the ground, effectively hearing through their feet. Unraveling the mysteries of elephant behavior and exploring the implications for humankind will remain her life's work, she says. If along the way she wins converts for conservation, or inspires young women to pursue the sciences, even better.
From entomology to elephants
It wasn't on her agenda to study insects, but entomology was the springboard for Dr. O'Connell-Rodwell's career. Though she always knew she wanted to be a biologist, "I just wasn't exactly sure how I would combine my interests in science and animals," she says.
As part of a junior year biology course, Dr. O'Connell-Rodwell spent spring break at a marine biology field station in St. Croix. "I volunteered after I graduated and met ecologists from around the world, including an entomologist who got me my first job in Hawaii. It was very much a case of asking the right questions and being in the right place at the right time. The passion of those scientists is what caught me." She later earned her graduate degree in entomology from the University of Hawaii (UH) at Manoa. Her master's thesis on seismic communication in plant hoppers helped parallel the "freezing" behavior she saw in both the insects and elephants. When listening, both species often stop suddenly, lean forward onto the front legs and sometimes lift one leg - or trunk, in the case of elephants. Dr. O'Connell-Rodwell made the link between the minute and the mammoth and charted a new path in seismic research. Following her studies at UH, Dr. O'Connell-Rodwell went on to earn her Ph.D. from The University of California, Davis. Today, as a Stanford University consulting assistant professor, she's become a celebrated voice in a vast conversation on how species communicate.
Smokey is one of the resident bulls that is in the hormonal state of musth (similar to rutting). While this stance might look playful, it is actually a serious threat display with typical trunk curl, prancing, and urine dribbling. He is agitated by the presence of the local dominant bull, hence his performance.
Studying animals in their native habitats can lead to interesting experiences - like the time she and her husband spent the night inside a cramped, seven-foot square concrete blind facing a waterhole, using microphones, binoculars, and cameras to record the wildlife drawn to drink in darkness. Instead of elephants, they got lions. "I turned around to see this lioness appear; her head was right in the slit of the bunker," says Dr. O'Connell-Rodwell. "You should know what to expect at any moment and, in retrospect, if you're going to be in a hide you need to know if the slit is too big." After their joint cursing, clapping, and shooing proved fruitless, the lioness finally sauntered off when they swung at her with a flashlight.
It was one of many harrowing moments in this New Jersey native's career. While studying elephants for the past 15 years, she's been a neighbor to hundreds of species that share a diminishing habitat. Sleeping near lion, elephant, and hippo thrills the girl who grew up capturing (and releasing) frogs and snakes. But the core of her work revolves around meticulous record-keeping; learning the methods elephants use to send and receive messages, measuring the distances their sound can travel, and interpreting how certain calls of alarm, greeting, mating, or food availability can trigger certain responses.
Brave, but not fearless, Dr. O'Connell-Rodwell credits some of her survival savvy to a knack for staying calm in most situations. "I have a meditative aspect that not only helps to be a good observer of behavior, but has given me a disposition where I'm not a very reactive person," says Dr. O'Connell-Rodwell, who lists her Zeiss low-light binoculars as the one tool she would never be without in the field.
"With certain animals, some strategies are better than others. Every once in a while there'll be a rogue elephant, but for the most part, I'm familiar with their body language and can often rely on their nonverbal communication to let me know if I've crossed the line," says Dr. O'Connell-Rodwell. She marvels at the different behaviors of elephants she has come to know and has named for particular traits, ranging from bullies to great mentors. Gakulu, Torn Trunk, Greg, Slit Ear, Willie Nelson, and Margaret Thatcher were but a few.
At work in the field
Dr. O'Connell-Rodwell collects fecal samples of known individual elephants. These provide information to create a hormone and DNA profile, allowing her to match aggressive behavior with testosterone levels, and to piece together family ties.
During hours of solitude, observing and recording some of the 2,400 savannah elephants in Namibia's Etosha National Park, Dr. O'Connell-Rodwell noted how they used their sensitive trunks and feet to listen to seismic communications vibrating through the earth and from other elephants. "I've always had an interest in the things that people don't normally see," she says. "It's the subtleties of animal behavior that I'm really fascinated with. I can sit still somewhere for a long time and just watch. I think it was because of that skill that I was able to see the pattern in the elephants that I had seen in the plant hoppers."
Over the past 20 years, a noted group of elephant researchers showed that elephants could communicate through infrasounds - low frequencies - over long distances. But Dr. O'Connell- Rodwell broke new ground with her guess and subsequent proof that such messages were also transmitted through the earth. "Caitlin is an original thinker, a really good scientist, and one of the important biographers of elephants," said preeminent elephant researcher Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton.
Through her research in Namibia and with captive elephants in the United States, Dr. O'Connell-Rodwell has shown how they detect the seismic waves through the fat pads of their feet and through the middle ear bones, hearing the waves passing through the ground. Her latest study on savannah elephants proves they also are capable of discriminating whether sound waves transmitted through the ground originate from a familiar or unfamiliar caller.
The road ahead: A census tool that signals poachers
Dr. O'Connell-Rodwell is working on a Seis-Tracker, a tool with the capacity to measure the movement of mammals. Sturdy and easily camouflaged, the seismic sensor prototype emerged from technology used to monitor enemy troop movements in the Vietnam War. A surge in poaching in certain regions, triggered by the merger of unstable politics and ongoing poverty, makes monitoring the ranging patterns and well-being of elephants critical.
When elephants arrive at the waterhole for a drink at sunset, it is often a relaxed experience. But if several family groups arrive at once, it becomes chaos as the dominant and subordinate families jockey for access to the best water.
Seis-Tracker trials began in Etosha three years ago with her colleague, Dr. Jason Wood. Because it can track a human footfall, park managers can be alerted to poachers. The Seis-Tracker can not only track poachers and crop-raiding elephants, but can also potentially help locate wounded elephants so that they can be treated. "Occasionally, we have seen elephants that died of festering foot wounds after they stood on land mines," says Dr. O'Connell-Rodwell. "But the biggest threat is the loss of habitat. If we're going to be sure to have elephants left on this earth, we need to make sure that we save them some room!"
Every place where elephants live offers a different set of problems. "They have not evolved to be contained in small places," she says.
Dr. O'Connell-Rodwell's first book, The Elephant's Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa, was published last spring to stellar reviews. Presently at work on her second adult nonfiction book on bull elephant society, Dr. O'Connell-Rodwell is also writing a book for young readers about what it takes to be an elephant scientist. And if that's not enough, she and her husband also co-direct a nonprofit conservation organization, Utopia Scientific that offers supporters of her elephant research an opportunity to sponsor an individual elephant or join them as a paying volunteer in Namibia every summer. In addition to Utopia Scientific, Dr. O'Connell-Rodwell and her husband have created a production company, Triple Helix Productions. The company strives to place a higher quantity and quality of science content into the media. Their current film project is designed to interest girls in physics.
Finding a path at Fairfield
As vice president of the student body at Fairfield, Dr. O'Connell-Rodwell loved working in student government. "The experience gave me the opportunity to get a sense of the business realm as well as human resource management. I've tapped into those skills to great success over the years. Business and management are such important aspects of being a good scientist and yet there is little training for those skills as a scientist," she says.Competition was stiff in the bio program. Dr. O'Connell-Rodwell admits she could have handled the pressure better. "It wasn't until I took a coral reef ecology course my junior year that I realized there was a life for a biologist outside of med school. The future was starting to look a whole lot brighter!"
Advice for future biology majors?
"Jump right into what you think you want to do and just go for it," says Dr. O'Connell-Rodwell. "You can always change later, but at least you'll be ahead of the game if that one thing turned out to be what you really wanted. Never give up on your dream. I fought hard to figure out how to make something of my biology degree after I graduated. Getting into graduate school was not an immediate option for me. I knew I wanted to work outside, and with animals. That's when the serendipity kicked in and I was invited by a friend to volunteer on a lizard ecology project in the Caribbean, the summer after I graduated from Fairfield. That was the beginning of a very long and happy life as a scientist for me. With some experience as a professional biologist, I was able to get into a graduate program at UH and the rest is history."