The Elephant Scientist – Around the World in 50 Weeks

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This book combines not only my interest in animals, especially those endangered, but also takes place in a beautiful and little known part of the world, Namibia. The Etosha national park nestles in the north of the nation, in part of the Kalahari basin. I have not only visited the park, and spent some months working in Namibia, in 1990, but I have a story brewing from a photo I took while camping in the Etosha Park.

The Elephant Scientist by Caitlin O’Connell & Donna M. Jackson, photography by Caitlin O’Connell & Timothy Rodwell.

Grades 4-7.

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin, July 2011.

70 pages.

“In the sprawling African scrub desert of Etosha National Park, they call her “the mother of all elephants.” Holding binoculars closely to her eyes, American scientist Caitlin O’Connell could not believe what she was seeing from these African elephants: as the mighty matriarch scanned the horizon, the other elephants followed suit, stopped midstride, and stood as still as statues. This observation would guide the scientist to a groundbreaking discovery about elephant communication: elephants actually listen with their limbs.”

This book is part of the Scientists in the Field series, and while I haven’t read any of the others, I can attest to the quality of information and readability of this one. It is a series, which follows actual scientists in their experiments in lab and field. One gets a real sense of the years and patience that can be involved in the testing of just one hypothesis. The Elephant Scientist will enthrall Middle Graders who have a passion for biology and practical science, or those who are simply wowed by the largest land mammal, and will be happy to take this visual safari.

Field biologist, Caitlin O’Connell, has been fascinated by animals from childhood and the development of an early passion for frogs. After studying insects in Hawaii, her research took her to Namibia, where she studies elephants. In particular, she studies how elephants communicate, and she’s found that elephants are able to sense minute vibrations in the ground through their feet. It seems elephants can send these signals over vast distances probably communicating messages to potential mates and offering danger warnings. Could this also enable researchers like Caitlin to develop a harmless way to protect farmers’ fields from elephant damage, or entice them back to their home areas in wildlife refuges? The book details the months of experimentation, recording the vibrations and replaying them through the air and then the earth, to reproduce the original scenario and elephant response.

Part of the research includes studying elephants in captivity, including one elephant, Donna, who was taught to respond to vibrations in the ground in order to test her range, using a reward system. There is much to study about these majestic creatures, especially as humans encroach on their territory. If we’re going to save elephants, we have to learn how to help local farmers and villagers to get along with them. I was interested to read about not only the normal dangers of habitat loss and poaching etc, but how such threats are causing psychological damage to the intelligent elephant. The African elephant (both sub species) is listed as ‘vulnerable’ (the Indian elephant is endangered) having decreased from as many as ten million a century ago to around 500,000 now.

Through all of the information, what struck me most was how social and intelligent and human these glorious beasts are. Let me give you a couple of quotes.

“When a baby is born, or when they are reunited with old friends, elephants will trumpet, scream and roar wildly…Strangely they will often peep and poop as part of the celebration.”

“Bull elephant behaviour is fascinating,” says Caitlin. 3It’s almost daunting how their social dynamics mirror ours in the way they form all male groups – similar to fraternities..”

A huge appeal of this book is the stunning, vivid photography of elephants in the wild. From aerial photography to close-ups, from seasoned matriarchs to newborns able to walk under their mothers. These photos will captivate adult and child readers alike. Elephants are already a popular topic and this book explains some of the current research going on with this species that will not only help us understand them better, but hopefully help us protect them better.

The book ends with a rich array of back matter, including an index, glossary, bibliography, and further resources. This series will inspire young minds and The Elephant Scientist is a worthy addition to your book shelf!

Maybe you would like to consider adopting an elephant? See

A couple of further web links for your interest:

Elephant Voices & The Elephants of Africa

Elephants in Etosha National Park

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16 Responses to The Elephant Scientist – Around the World in 50 Weeks

  1. Oh. The last photo is lovely. Elephants seem like such lovely creatures and this looks like an educational book for all ages. I find I have less time for longer texts on subjects like this, but this book might be OK for me. We have a book on penguins that’s too advanced for Enzo, but I just make up stories to go with the pictures.

    • Joanna says:

      Stacey, the text is long in this book, but many children (and adult) will enjoy books simply for their artwork or photos, and this is legit. in my mind 😉

  2. What an inspiring and fascinating book. I am impressed with how intelligent these majestic creatures are, and what strong memories they possess. Their means of communication through the low vibration they create with their feet/limbs really caught my attention. It’s amazing those vibrations lead them to water, and away from danger. If elephants, respond to vibration, it makes sense to me why a group my friends, who are chanters, were able to work with psychologically damaged elephants through their chanting. I found Caitlin O’Connell’s research very exciting as she continues to work with elephants and local farmers to prevent the elephants from eating their crops. Her story is an important one to tell. Thank you for sharing this beautiful book. This book has your name written all over it!

    • Joanna says:

      Pat, I love your story about the chanters, and it makes so much sense that chanting vibrations would be healing. I was not surprised to read of how psychologically damaged elephants can be. I really enjoyed this book very much and can imagine it inspiring some kids on their life’s purpose!

  3. This book, and the research and results therein, sound fascinating. You “hooked” me with the mention of Namibia and Etosha National Park, as one of my dear friends and her family spent the Christmas season there.

    I am always moved by the way animals, and particularly elephants, are so akin to us. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. Joanna says:

    Beth, I hope you got to see some photos of this splendid park! They are such intelligent creatures and their famed memory is for real!

  5. Beautiful review on a beautiful book Joanna. Thankyou for sharing. Must see if I can get this book. Elephants are such beautiful gentle animals. Story from a picture… sounds intriguing!

  6. Ok, had to come over and take a peek on what animal you covered. Glad I did. Love elephants. Looks like a great non-fiction book. Thanks for stopping by my Castle. =)

  7. This book sounds fascinating, Joanna. I love learning about animals. I think many humans tend to disregard them as lesser, and yet the things they can do are amazing, and so many animals have shown themselves to have sophisticated social hierarchies and systems of communication etc. The research in this book sounds really interesting and the photography must be captivating. Thanks for sharing!

  8. I imagine it would be so interesting to study elephants–their intelligence, social ability–it is all very impressive!

  9. Hi Joanna, your affection for animals shines through with your reviews. I can’t wait to read YOUR own picture book/novel about that photo you took. 🙂 Sending you positive energies for your eventual book publication. Simply a matter of time. 🙂

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