Tag Archives: primates

Episode 196: Many Monkeys



Thanks to Nick and Richard from NC for their suggestions this week! Let’s learn about A BUNCH OF MONKEYS!

Further reading:

How we solved the Green monkey mystery–and found an important clue to Bronze Age world

Field Notes: Singing Titi Monkeys (with a video of them singing)

Dracula monkeys and Dracula:

The Dracula monkey orchid (not a vampire, not a monkey, but it is an orchid):

A capuchin monkey insisting a friend “see no evil”:

Abu!

Mandrills gonna get as colorful as monkily possible:

Rafiki! Why is your tail so long?

One of the “blue monkey” wall frescos and some grey langurs:

The fluffy titi monkey:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

Halloween is over for another year, but that doesn’t mean things get boring. This week let’s learn about some monkeys, including a few monkey mysteries that were solved with science! Thanks to Nick and Richard for their suggestions.

We’ll start with the Dracula monkey, suggested by Richard from North Carolina, who also sent me an article a while back about the monkey. I meant to include this topic in an episode before October but got distracted by all the other awesome animals that have been suggested lately.

The Dracula monkey is also called Miller’s Grizzled langur, but that’s a mouthful and Dracula monkey is funnier. It’s not called the Dracula monkey because it has fangs, but because its body is gray with a white ruff that sticks out on either side of the neck like the collar of Dracula’s cape in the movies. Its face is also gray except for a white U-shaped marking under its nose like a little white mustache. It grows up to 22 inches long, or 56 cm, not counting its tail which is even longer than its body.

The Dracula monkey eats young leaves and unripe fruit, along with flowers, seeds, and sometimes eggs. It spends most of its time in trees and is endangered by habitat loss and hunting, and it only lives in one place, in rainforests on the island of Borneo in South Asia. It was spotted by scientists in 2012 after it was suspected to be extinct, but that was the last anyone saw of it for years.

An Animal Planet show called “Extinct or Alive” was filming in Borneo in spring of 2019, unless it was 2018, it’s not clear from the article, searching for the Dracula monkey. The host and his team set up camera traps in the forest, braving literally hundreds of bee stings as they did so. But it worked, catching the monkey on camera and proving it wasn’t extinct. When an animal is declared extinct, conservationists lose funding to help it and it’s removed from the list of protected animals, so it’s important to search for animals that are suspected to be extinct but might not be.

While I was researching the Dracula monkey, I learned about a rare orchid called the Dracula monkey orchid. It has fuzzy reddish-brown and white flowers that look remarkably like a monkey’s face. It doesn’t actually look like Dracula or a Dracula monkey, though. Who names these organisms? In this case, scientists. The orchid’s scientific name is Dracula simia, and the genus Dracula is named because some of the orchids in the genus are red or black and white and the long spurs supposedly hang down like fangs. The Dracula monkey orchid is found in southeastern Ecuador in South America, and only grows in moist high-altitude forests. The flowers smell like oranges. This has been your bonus plant fact of the week.

The Dracula monkey orchid actually looks more like a capuchin monkey than a Dracula monkey, so let’s learn about the capuchin next.

You probably know what the capuchin monkey looks like because it’s so common in movies. The monkey in Raiders of the Lost Ark (you know, the “bad dates” monkey) was a capuchin, but the noises he makes in the movie are actually voiced by a human actor named Frank Welker. Welker also voiced the monkey Abu in Disney’s Aladdin from 1992. In the live-action remake from 2019, he’s still a capuchin but computer-animated.

The capuchin monkey lives in forests in Central and South America, but there are lots of species. Most are dark brown with cream-colored markings on the face and around the neck. It lives in trees and unlike many monkeys, it’s an omnivore. It eats leaves, fruit, nuts, flowers, and other plant parts, but it also eats insects, frogs, crabs, shellfish, and other small animals. It’s about the same size as the Dracula monkey, up to 22 inches long, or 56 cm, with a tail the same length as the body.

The reason so many capuchin monkeys are used in movies and TV shows is because they’re one of the most intelligent monkeys known, social, adaptable, and easy to train. But they’re wild animals and they don’t make great pets. They can be dangerous if they’re upset, and to be happy they need the company of other capuchin monkeys in a situation as much like their social structure in the wild as possible. In the wild, the capuchin lives in groups of up to 35 individuals that travel around the group’s territory throughout the day, looking for food. Their social structure is complicated, which is usually the case with intelligent animals, and members of the group interact constantly, whether they’re grooming each other, playing, gathering food, or watching for danger.

The capuchin monkey is a tool user, which was well known to locals but wasn’t observed in the wild by scientists until 2004. It uses rocks to break open shellfish and nuts, and it will use different sized rocks to break different kinds of nuts. For really hard nuts it will use large, heavy rocks, but for smaller nuts it will use a smaller, lighter rock. This sounds like a duh moment, but that’s because humans are the ultimate tool users and we understand that of course you shouldn’t smash open a cashew with a gigantic rock because you’d just pulverize the nut, while tapping at a really hard nut with a little pebble won’t do anything to break it open.

Not only do the capuchin monkeys in Brazil use different sized rocks to break open nuts, they select the rocks carefully and prefer ones that are rounded and easy to handle. They’re called cobbles. They set the nuts on a hard surface like another rock or an exposed tree root and use the cobbles to break the nuts open.

In 2016, researchers chose a site where capuchin monkeys have been using these stones to open nuts for many years. They treated it as an archaeological site and excavated it by digging carefully and documenting what they found. They found that the site had been used for at least 3,000 years, with some evidence that the monkeys’ diet had changed from eating smaller nuts to larger, harder nuts. Researchers aren’t sure if the diet change came from changes in the foods that were available or if the monkeys became better at breaking open hard nuts so were able to eat more of them.

This is what a capuchin monkey actually sounds like, including the little birdlike trills:

[monkey sounds]

Nick suggested that we learn about the mandrill, so let’s do that next. The mandrill is a big monkey that lives in forests and rainforests in parts of the west coast of central Africa. Not only is it a big monkey, it’s the biggest monkey, or at least the heaviest. Males are much larger than females and a big male can weigh as much as 119 lbs, or 54 kg, and possibly more. It’s a muscular, compact animal that looks more like an ape than a monkey, and it spends most of its time on the ground instead of in trees. It’s dark gray or greeny-brown with a white belly, a long muzzle, and a little stub of a tail.

And, of course, the mandrill is really colorful. A dominant male develops bright blue and red markings on his muzzle and blue, pink, and purplish colors on his bare bottom. Females and subordinate males are less colorful. During mating season, females who are in estrus, which means they’re fertile and can have a baby, develop enlarged red bottoms to attract a male.

All this is interesting, and cheerfully colorful, but if you stop and think about it for a moment, how many mammals can you think of that have skin that is bright blue or purple? Not very many. For a long time researchers weren’t sure what caused the color. It’s not a pigment, so it has to be caused some other way. The blue coloring of many birds is caused by the way light reflects off the black pigment in the feathers. It turns out that in mammals with blue and purple skin, the same is true. Skin contains a protein called collagen, which is very tough and which grows in a random pattern. But in the areas where a mandrill’s skin is blue or purple, the collagen fibers grow in a parallel pattern. This means that when light reflects off the skin, only the blue wavelengths of light bounce off. The other wavelengths are canceled out. The closer together the collagen fibers are, the brighter the blue.

The mandrill lives in much larger groups than other monkeys do, sometimes numbering several hundred. One group had over 1,300 members. Generally, each group is made up of females and their babies, with a dominant male that lives on the outskirts of the group most of the time. The exception is during mating season, which lasts from June to October. During this time the females allow males to join the group so they can mate. A female usually only has one baby every two years, and a mother mandrill’s female relatives help care for the baby. When male babies grow up they leave the group and live on their own, while females remain in the group.

The mandrill is an omnivore although it most eats fruit and other plant material, but it will eat insects and other invertebrates, eggs, and small vertebrates like frogs, rats, and birds. It has long canine teeth that help it kill small animals and even larger animals if it can catch them. It even has cheek pouches so it can carry food around to eat later. It mostly feeds on the ground but will climb trees to get food and it also sleeps in trees at night.

Since we were talking about movie monkeys earlier, the character of Rafiki in the Lion King is a mandrill.

Next, let’s look at a couple of monkey mysteries that were recently solved. The Greek island of Santorini, once called Thera, is famous for its murals, which were uncovered by archaeologists around 50 years ago and are studied to learn about the people who lived on the island 3,600 years ago. The frescos, or wall paintings, were preserved by volcanic ash that destroyed the city of Akrotiri. Some of the frescos depict monkeys of various kinds, including one type of monkey that’s been a mystery for years. Historians assumed the monkeys had to be from Africa, since the Aegean people of the island traded with Egypt. But the paintings didn’t quite match any monkey known from Africa. Finally, the historians studying the frescos called in some primatologists to see if they could figure out the mystery.

The monkeys are depicted as blue-grey with long tails carried upward in a curve like a big question mark. This detail gave the primatologists the clue they needed. The mystery monkeys were Hanuman langurs, also called the gray langur, which carry their tails in exactly this way. They’re from India, not Africa, which means that the Aegeans must have had trade routes that were far more extensive than previously known.

The gray langur lives throughout the Indian subcontinent and there are several species. They mostly eat leaves, along with seeds, lichen, fruit, moss, and lots of other plant materials, but they’ll occasionally eat insect larvae and spider webs. I do not know why they eat spider webs. Seems like it would get caught in their teeth.

The gray langur is an adaptable monkey and lives in forests, rainforests, deserts, mountains, and villages. Human villages, I should add. The monkeys don’t make little villages of their own. They even live in large cities, where they will steal food from people and sometimes bite.

For our other monkey mystery, let’s finish up with an unusual monkey that once lived on the island of Jamaica in the Caribbean. Like many island animals, it had no predators and evolved many unique traits. Also like many island animals, it went extinct after humans moved in. The Jamaican monkey, Xenothrix mcgregori, probably only went extinct around 500 years ago, and it was pretty weird-looking. We mostly only know anything about it because of remains found in caves.

The Jamaican monkey had a long tail but short legs compared to most other monkeys. It had leg bones that look more like the legs of a rodent than a monkey. It did live in trees like most monkeys do and probably ate fruit, nuts, and other plant materials. But it didn’t have very many teeth and it moved slowly, which is not a typical monkey trait. It was about the size of the capuchin monkey, up to 22 inches long, or 56 cm.

Scientists had no idea what kind of primate it was until a team managed to extract DNA from some bones. Results of the genetic study were published in 2018 and reveal that the Jamaican monkey was most closely related to the titi monkey.

The titi monkey lives in South America and spends almost all of its time in trees. Its fur is long and soft, and depending on the species it can be brown, gray or black, or even reddish, sometimes with white markings. Unlike the other long-tailed monkeys we’ve talked about today, its tail is not prehensile.

The titi lives in family groups, basically just parents and their children, and pairs mate for life. This is pretty unusual among monkeys. The female usually only has one baby a year and the male cares for it most of the time. If something happens to the parents, sometimes another pair of monkeys will adopt the baby.

This is what the titi monkey sounds like, specifically the black-fronted titi monkey. There’s a link in the show notes if you want to watch the whole video, which goes on for a full minute and is hilarious and adorable.

[monkey sounds]

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 043: The Chinese Ink Monkey



This week’s almost late but NOT LATE OKAY episode is about the Chinese ink monkey!

A pygmy tarsier, probably not an ink monkey:

Further reading:

The Search for the Last Undiscovered Animals by Karl P.N. Shuker

Further listening:

Relic: The Lost Treasure Podcast – I’m a guest in episode 15 but all the episodes are great!

Bonus episode since this one is so short (click through and hit play)

Episode transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week’s episode was supposed to be about animals that were saved from extinction by human intervention, but between National Novel Writing Month, the Thanksgiving holidays, and the release of Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp I didn’t get the research completed. So that episode will run in a week or two and we’ll learn about something else this week. Something short, because it’s Sunday and I need to get this episode edited and uploaded so you can listen to it first thing Monday morning.

But first, I want to tell you about an awesome podcast who had me as a guest last week. If you don’t already listen to Relic: The Lost Treasure podcast, I highly recommend it. It’s family friendly and a great take on an aspect of history that doesn’t always get the in-depth research it deserves. In between regular seasons, the host, Maxwell, releases roundtable discussion episodes with different people to cover topics that maybe aren’t exactly about lost treasure, but close. I appeared in episode 15, called “Back from Extinction,” where we discussed animals that were declared extinct but have been rediscovered, although not without controversy. I’ll put a link in the show notes so you can go check that one out. I’d planned my own saved from extinction episode as a sort of follow-up, but time got away from me.

So what are we talking about today? In honor of the end of National Novel Writing Month, which is kicking my butt this year, we’re investigating a mystery animal called the Chinese Ink Monkey.

The story goes that in antiquity, as far back as 2,000 BCE, a tiny primate known as an ink monkey was frequently the pet of scholars and scribes in China. It wasn’t just a cute little pet, it was useful. It was intelligent and could be trained to prepare ink, which back in those days came in blocks and had to be ground into powder and mixed with water to the right consistency. It would turn book pages so the scholar could read hands-free, it would hand pens and other items to the scholar, and it was small enough to sleep in the scholar’s brush pot or desk drawer. Such a useful little creature was highly sought after, but was supposed to have gone extinct at some point centuries ago.

According to a book of Chinese lore called The Dragon Book, published in English in 1938, the ink monkey was only around 5 inches long, or 13 cm. Its sleek fur was black and soft and it had red eyes. It was also supposed to drink any ink remaining at the end of the day as its preferred food.

Since ink in those days was frequently made with precious materials like sandalwood, crushed pearls, musk, rare herbs, and even gold, and those things are not just valuable, they’re not all that nutritious, ink monkeys probably didn’t actually drink ink. But was it even a real animal or just a legend?

In April of 1996, the ink monkey story got media attention when a press release from the official New China News Agency announced its rediscovery in the Wuyi Mountains of Fujian Province. The press release didn’t have many details at all. It basically just reported that the animal was mouse-sized and had been found.

The smallest monkey alive today is the pygmy marmoset from South America, which is about 10 inches long, or almost 26 cm. But there is another animal that looks like a monkey but which is no more than about six inches long, or 15 cm, not counting its tail.

The tarsier is a nocturnal primate with huge round eyes, mouse-like ears, and sucker-like discs at the ends of its toes which it uses to climb trees. Its tail is extremely long, as are its hind legs, which helps it jump through the trees where it spends almost its whole life. While the various species of tarsier are only found on various islands of Southeast Asia today, they were once more widespread. One extinct species did live in China, but not recently. Not even remotely recently. More like 35 to 40 million years ago.

The smallest species is the pygmy tarsier, which is only found in central Sulawesi in Indonesia. It was thought extinct for decades until 2000, when it was rediscovered by local scientists. It’s only about four inches long, or 10.5 cm.

There’s still some controversy as to whether the tarsier is actually a primate. DNA studies haven’t cleared it up yet. But one thing is clear: the tarsier is a heckin adorable little guy. Its eyes are each as big as its brain and most pictures of tarsiers taken in daylight show it squinting as though it’s considering an important philosophical question. The tarsier’s fur is soft, usually beige or orangey in color, and its eyes are golden.

We’ve met the tarsier before briefly in episode eight, the strange recordings episode, because the tarsier communicates in infrasound—sounds too high for humans to hear. It’s carnivorous too, mostly eating insects but it will also eat birds, bats, and reptiles when it can catch them.

But back to the press release that the ink monkey had been rediscovered in China. At least one imminent naturalist, Sir David Attenborough himself, suggested that a species of tarsier might easily have been living in China all along without being known to science. While it is doubtful that a tarsier could learn to prepare ink or turn book pages, it’s also possible that if a famous scholar kept one as a pet, the story of its helpfulness might have been added over the centuries.

The mystery of the ink monkey’s rediscovery was cleared up by zoologist Karl Shuker, who is basically the expert on the ink monkey. Most of my research for this episode comes from his book The Search for the Last Undiscovered Animals. I’ll put a link in the show notes, of course. He discovered that a few weeks before the official press release, a short account of a discovery was published in the London Times on April 5, 1996. That report was about the discovery of a mouse-sized primate in China, sure, but not a living animal. This was a fossil discovery—specifically, a fossil jaw of an tiny proto-monkey that lived around 43 million years ago.

As Shuker concludes, the confusion probably stems from a poor English translation in the press release, leading to reporters thinking a live animal had been discovered.

But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t once a real primate that gave rise to the Chinese ink monkey legend—whether it’s a tarsier or an actual monkey or something else Maybe one day we’ll find out.

That’s it for this episode. I warned you it would be short. To make it up to you, I’ll unlock another Patreon episode for anyone to listen to, this one about mammoths and mastodons. That one probably should have been a regular episode anyway. I’ll put a link directly to the episode in the show notes and you don’t need a Patreon login to listen to it, just click the link and press play.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 023: Nonhuman Musicians



This week’s episode is about nonhuman musicians. It’s rarer than you’d think.

The palm cockatoo. Nature’s drummer. In possibly related news, I know what my next tattoo is going to be.

Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo.

Members of the Thai Elephant Orchestra at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center:

Further reading:

Kinship with Animals by Dave Soldier

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week’s episode about nonhuman musicians was inspired by an article about palm cockatoos. The male cockatoos drum on tree trunks or hollow logs as part of their courtship display, which doesn’t sound all that unusual until you learn that they use special crafted sticks to drum. A male will select a stick, trim it down the way he wants it, and hold it in his claw to drum. Sometimes he’ll use a hard seedpod instead. The resulting beats are not only consistently in rhythm, each individual has a personal style. Some drum quickly, some slowly, some throw in little flourishes. Sometimes females will drum too, and if a female likes a male’s drumming, she may imitate him or join in.

Here’s a little clip of a male drumming. He’s also whistling.

[palm cockatoo drumming]

The palm cockatoo is an awesome-looking bird. It looks like a drummer. It’s up to two feet long, or 61 cm, smoky gray or gray-black with a heavy gray beak, red cheek patches that flush when the bird is upset or excited, and a messy crest of feathers. It’s native to Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and the very northern tip of Australia, Cape York Peninsula. Only the Australian birds are known to drum. Unfortunately, the Australian birds are the ones most threatened in the wild due to habitat loss.

The palm cockatoo eats nuts and seeds, and like all parrots it can live a long time. And yes, you can get them as pets—and now I’m desperate for one even though the last thing I need is a pet cockatoo. I have a coworker with a pet parrot who she says is incredibly neurotic. He tends to get overexcited and starts screaming, and she has to put him in his cage and cover it so he’ll shut up. Her kids found the parrot when they were young. He plopped down in her yard when they were playing outside, and they put an empty laundry basket over him to trap him. No one claimed him, so my coworker has now been stuck with a neurotic parrot for over twenty years. She’s pretty sure he survived in the wild by hanging out with crows, because one of the things that will set off his excited screaming is hearing crows outside. And while cockatoos and parrots in general are typically affectionate and make good pets, palm cockatoos are not. They’re considered “difficult.” When parrot fanciers call a type of bird difficult, it’s difficult.

Anyway, the really unusual thing about the palm cockatoo’s drumming isn’t its tool use, which is well known among many types of birds, especially parrots and their relations. It’s the rhythm.

Most animals can’t keep a beat. Synchronization to an external rhythm is called rhythmic entrainment. Humans are really good at it and recognize a beat automatically, but responding in time to a rhythm is a learned skill. Small children have to learn to keep a beat by moving their bodies, speaking, or singing, and they learn it best in social settings. That’s why music, dance, and rhythmic play activities are so important to preschool children. And as a drummer myself, I promise you, humans of any age can learn to improve their rhythm.

But most animals don’t seem to have the ability to distinguish rhythmic beats, although it hasn’t been studied all that much until fairly recently. Some researchers think it may have something to do with the ability to mimic vocal sounds.

That would explain why many birds show rhythmic entrainment, varying from species to species. A sulfur-crested cockatoo named Snowball was internet-famous for a while in clips where the bird danced to music. As a result, Snowball became the subject of a rhythmic entrainment study that shows he can adapt his dancing to changing tempos.

But not all animals who show rhythmic entrainment can mimic vocally. California sea lions aren’t exactly the parrots of the sea animal world, but they can be trained to move to a beat. On the other hand, closely related seals are vocal learners. In fact, one famous harbor seal who was raised by a fisherman who found the orphaned pup could imitate the fisherman so well he was known as “Hoover the Talking Seal.”

Here’s the only clip I would find of Hoover. The first time I listened to it, I couldn’t figure out when the seal was talking. All I could hear was some gruff-sounding guy talking really fast. Well, that’s Hoover.

[Hoover the talking seal]

That is Hoover the talking seal talking. It’s creepy as heck.

It’s possible that sea lions still retain neural pathways that allow vocal mimicking even if they no longer use them. Then again, some researchers now believe that vocal mimicking ability may only be a skill related to rhythmic entrainment, not the source of the ability, and that the neural pathways for rhythmic entrainment may be very old. Some species can express entrainment, others appear to have lost it.

Studies on human brains show that when music plays, pretty much the entire brain lights up in response. That’s because we have special neural connections that help coordinate motor planning, speech, and other skills with the perceived beat. Brains of parrots and other birds are very similar. But monkeys are not. Monkeys can’t dance. Poor monkeys.

One study with rhesus monkeys who were trained to tap in rhythm with a metronome determined that they couldn’t anticipate the beat but could tap just after it, responding to it, even after years of training. Many rhythmic entrainment studies focus on great apes, since it’s reasonable to suppose that humans’ close cousins might share our rhythmic ability.

Patricia Grey, a bio-music researcher at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, taught a group of captive bonobo apes to play a drum along with a beat. But it wasn’t as simple as showing a bonobo how a drum worked and seeing if it could keep a beat. She had to encourage the apes in a social setting, just like with human children. Also, she had to design a drum that could take a whole lot of abuse. I love that she went to Remo, a company that manufactures drums and drumheads, to have the drum made.

Her experiment started by accident. In 2010, Grey was at the Great Ape Research Center in Des Moines waiting for an experiment to be set up, and while she waited she idly tapped the glass on the bonobo enclosure. A bonobo named Kanzi came over and tapped her hand on the glass in response, matching Grey’s tempo. Intrigued, Grey continued tapping to see how long Kanzi would keep it up. Kanzi didn’t stop, even when her snack time came. She ate her snack lying on her back so she could continue to tap with her feet.

Wild chimpanzees and bonobos drum on logs and their own bodies to make rhythmic noise during play and dominance activities. Dominant male chimps do a particularly exaggerated slow display when thunderstorms approach, called a rain dance by researchers, that involves drumming. A variation of the rain dance has been seen when wildfires are approaching a troupe of chimps. Naturally it’s called a fire dance, and it includes a vocalization heard at no other time.

Chimps are pretty chill when it comes to fire, by the way. They understand how it spreads and how to avoid it without panicking.

Another animal that can keep the beat? Elephants! Asian elephants are vocal mimics and their ability to keep a beat is extremely precise. In 2000, the Thai Elephant Orchestra was created with elephants at a conservation center in Thailand, who learned to play oversized versions of traditional Thai percussion instruments.

The elephants learned the instruments easily, taking to it so quickly and so well that the orchestra’s founders were astonished. The great thing is, the elephants actually create much of the music themselves. The orchestra’s founders, neuroscientist Dave Soldier and elephant conservationist Richard Lair, wanted the elephants to have fun and enjoy making music. So for most songs, the animals are only signaled when to start and stop playing. Occasionally human musicians play along.

The orchestra released three albums between 2002 and 2011, which were all well received—not as novelty albums, but as actual improvisational compositions. Some of the songs are arranged, with the elephants trained to play traditional Thai music. The orchestra performs live for visitors at the conservation center.

The orchestra varies in size from five to fourteen elephants. One particularly talented drummer, Luk Kop, could play three drums at the same time and set up complex rhythms. Unfortunately he was also a dangerous elephant, and that’s not good for a band or an elephant orchestra, so he had to drop out.

The elephants prefer non-dissonant tones and learn to strike the properly resonant parts of their instruments without even being taught. The elephants at the center also enjoy playing harmonicas. The tip of an elephant’s trunk has a fingerlike projection, so an elephant can hold a harmonica and blow through it with its trunk. Soldier reports that one morning he arrived at the center early when the elephants were heading down to the river for their morning bath. Almost all the elephants had brought their harmonicas and were playing together as they walked.

Most of the elephants at the center are former logging animals, and many of their handlers, known as mahouts, once worked with them when they were logging. Mahouts traditionally sing to their elephants, which is supposed to keep them calm. So the elephants in the orchestra are familiar with traditional Thai music.

Locals who have heard the orchestra play say the music sounds like the music in Buddhist temples. Soldier, a musician and composer himself, transcribed an original elephant piece which was then played by a human orchestra in New York. The audience didn’t know it was composed by elephants. Some guesses as to who the composer might be included John Cage, Dvorak, and Charles Ives.

Whether or not you like improvisational Thai music played by elephants, or you think it’s just a stupid gimmick, it’s clear the elephants are having a lot of fun. Here’s a clip of some of their music recorded at the conservation center. That’s some mighty fine percussion for animals who don’t even have hands.

[elephant orchestra]

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes for as little as one dollar a month.

Thanks for listening!