Scientists blindfold elephants and discover that this is not a good idea

Elephants clearly need their sight to time their steps.

In fact, elephants always walk the same way, regardless of their speed. They first lift (and place) their left back leg, then their left front leg, followed by their right front leg and finally their right back leg. And perhaps this is for good reason. Because scientists suspect that elephants cling to this stubbornly so as not to lose their balance. Obviously, the latter can have far-reaching consequences for the elephant, because a fall can easily kill larger wild animals – such as elephants.

In short: consistent gait appears to be vitally important for elephants. But what exactly are the senses they rely on to keep this pace consistent? This was unknown until recently. But a new study – published in the journal Biology letters – Now that changes. The magazine indicates that scientists – by blindfolding the eyes of some Asian elephants – discovered that elephants rely heavily on their eyes for a steady and stable gait.

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The researchers base their conclusions on experiments conducted on four captive Asian elephants. The elephants are equipped with instruments with which their walking and gait speed can be closely monitored. They then walked slowly in pairs along a 90-metre track. The back elephant was holding the tail of the front elephant. Sometimes the elephant in the back was blindfolded, other times he could see.

Next, the researchers compared data from the blindfolded elephants with data from elephants that followed their peers without blindfolds during the experiment. Specifically, they looked at the time it takes for an elephant to get all of its legs to take a step, or the time that elapses between the moment its right hind leg touches the ground and the moment its right hind leg does so again. In the elephants that were not blindfolded, the timing of their steps, and thus the time elapsed between the moments when their right hind leg touched the ground, was quite consistent. But with blindfolded elephants, this gradually deviated more and more. “So their movement gradually became less consistent,” says researcher John Hutchinson. “Contradictions accumulated in the timing of their steps.”

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This had no consequences for the elephants in this carefully designed experiment. “The safety of our elephants was our first priority,” Hutchinson stressed. “They never stumbled and were never in danger of falling. We let them walk very slowly on a flat surface, while they were accompanied by caregivers and a companion.” The blindfolded elephants in the experiment were therefore not in danger – although they relied on their vision to time their steps and perhaps Their stability, too. But things may be different for wild elephants. “In more normal situations, an elephant with vision problems may stumble or even fall,” Hutchinson said.

“Visual feedback is essential to correct errors that may arise in the timing of Asian elephant movements,” the researchers concluded in the study. Their studies. When elephants can’t get or apply that visual feedback, they literally become more and more off track. “If these discrepancies become large enough, they can lead to a trip or a fall.”

The study – which demonstrates for the first time the importance of visual feedback to an elephant’s movement – is important. “Elephants are the largest land animals, so they can give us more knowledge about the ‘rules’ that large animals follow when it comes to locomotion and avoiding falls,” Hutchinson says. If scientists or keepers know the mechanisms behind an elephant’s consistent gait, they can then make a diagnosis based on small deviations in that gait. For example, small deviations in an elephant’s gait can indicate vision problems. Furthermore, studying elephant gait can also monitor how elephants known to have vision problems cope. The researchers therefore hope that their findings will ultimately lead to better care and therefore better welfare for elephants.

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Megan Vasquez

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