When Poachers Kill Their Mothers, Elephant Daughters Hold Social Networks Together


In elephant families, it’s the matriarchs who call the shots. They decide where a group goes, where it eats and when. They’re also the glue that holds elephant societies together. Elephants have a tiered social network of small “core groups” of close relatives, and larger, less cohesive “bond groups” and “clan groups” that include distant relatives and acquaintances. Older matriarchs with lots of social ties are the hubs that connect all these groups to each other. 

These older female leaders are also frequent targets for ivory poachers because of their large tusks. When they’re killed, other elephants not only lose their mothers, sisters, and grandmothers, but also their links to the rest of their social networks. 

In other animal societies, studies have shown that removing individuals who act as social hubs can collapse such networks. With demand for ivory leading to tens of thousands of elephant deaths a year, researchers feared that the same thing would happen to elephants. A new study published in the journal Current Biology shows, though, that elephant societies are more resilient than expected because younger females step into their mothers’ connective roles in the social network. 

Biologists Shifra Goldenberg, Iain Douglas Hamilton, and George Wittemyer explored how elephant networks respond to the “selective knockouts” caused by poaching by looking at data they had collected while studying more than 100 elephants over the last 18 years in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve. They knew many of the elephants by the shape of their ears, their scars and other body markings, and even their behavioral quirks. They also knew which elephants hung out together and how their different groups were connected. 

The researchers went back to their observations and reconstructed the Samburu elephants’ social network at different points between 1998 and 2014, during which there were stretches of relatively little poaching and a recent period of intense poaching. 

They found that over those 16 years, the average age of the Samburu elephants became much younger as older elephants were killed. There was a high turnover in the population’s adult females, and less than one-third of the elephants that the researchers encountered in 1998 were still alive last year.

Despite the death toll, the Samburu social network didn’t fall apart. It remained intact because daughter elephants stepped in to fill the roles that were left behind by their mothers. In some of these cases, the new matriarchs were barely fully grown, but their surviving relatives still rallied around them as the oldest females in the family.

These younger elephants not only took over the leadership of their core groups, but filled in the connective roles in the bigger network, often replicating the positions held by their mothers. Daughters maintained the social ties and relationships their mothers had built when they were alive, keeping their core group connected to the others in the bond group through matriarchs that their mothers had known, or their daughters if both moms had died. This helped them to keep the network intact with more or less the same structure that had existed before. When daughters couldn’t recreate their mothers’ networks exactly, they used the social opportunities that their mothers had provided them to strengthen relationships with elephants that were once only distant contacts of their moms, thus creating new bond groups.

The resilience of the elephants’ social structure is good news, but the researchers warn that there’s more work to be done before we know all the consequences of these families losing their oldest members. Even with the leadership roles filled and social ties maintained, elephants groups may run into problems with younger matriarchs in the lead. They lack the experience and knowledge that their mothers accrued over time, and other research has shown that older matriarchs are better than younger ones at distinguishing and responding to predators and other threats, and that families with older leaders have higher reproductive rates. The researchers plan to keep monitoring the Samburu elephants to see how these rebuilt families fare over time. 

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Dogs

Dogs: They’re cute, they’re cuddly … and they can smell fear!

Today on Scatterbrained, John Green and friends go beyond the floof to reveal some fascinating facts about our canine pals—including the story of one Bloodhound who helped track down 600 criminals during his lifetime. (Move over, McGruff.) They’re also looking at the name origins of some of your favorite dog breeds, going behind the scenes of the Puppy Bowl, and dishing the details on how a breed gets to compete at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

You can watch the full episode below.

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Sploot 101: 12 Animal Slang Words Every Pet Parent Should Know

For centuries, dogs were dogs and cats were cats. They did things like bark and drink water and lay down—actions that pet parents didn’t need a translator to understand.

Then the internet arrived. Scroll through the countless Facebook groups and Twitter accounts dedicated to sharing cute animal pictures and you’ll quickly see that dogs don’t have snouts, they have snoots, and cats come in a colorful assortment of shapes and sizes ranging from smol to floof.

Pet meme language has been around long enough to start leaking into everyday conversation. If you're a pet owner (or lover) who doesn’t want to be out of the loop, here are the terms you need to know.


You know your pet is fully relaxed when they’re doing a sploot. Like a split but for the whole body, a sploot occurs when a dog or cat stretches so their bellies are flat on the ground and their back legs are pointing behind them. The amusing pose may be a way for them to take advantage of the cool ground on a hot day, or just to feel a satisfying stretch in their hip flexors. Corgis are famous for the sploot, but any quadruped can do it if they’re flexible enough.


Person holding Marnie the dog.
Emma McIntyre, Getty Images for ASPCA

Unlike most items on this list, the word derp isn’t limited to cats and dogs. It can also be a stand-in for such expressions of stupidity as “duh” or “dur.” In recent years the term has become associated with clumsy, clueless, or silly-looking cats and dogs. A pet with a tongue perpetually hanging out of its mouth, like Marnie or Lil Bub, is textbook derpy.


Cat laying on desk chair.
PoppetCloset, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If you’ve ever caught a cat or dog poking the tip of its tongue past its front teeth, you’ve seen a blep in action. Unlike a derpy tongue, a blep is subtle and often gone as quickly as it appears. Animal experts aren’t entirely sure why pets blep, but in cats it may have something to do with the Flehmen response, in which they use their tongues to “smell” the air.


Mlems and bleps, though very closely related, aren’t exactly the same. While blep is a passive state of being, mlem is active. It’s what happens when a pet flicks its tongue in and out of its mouth, whether to slurp up water, taste food, or just lick the air in a derpy fashion. Dogs and cats do it, of course, but reptiles have also been known to mlem.


Very fluffy cat.
J. Sibiga Photography, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Some pets barely have any fur, and others have coats so voluminous that hair appears to make up most of their bodyweight. Dogs and cats in the latter group are known as floofs. Floofy animals will famously leave a wake of fur wherever they sit and can squeeze through tight spaces despite their enormous mass. Samoyeds, Pomeranians, and Persian cats are all prime examples of floofs.


Dog outside barking.

According to some corners of the internet, dogs don’t bark, they bork. Listen carefully next time you’re around a vocal doggo and you won’t be able to unhear it.


Shiba inu smiling up at the camera.

Speaking of doggos: This word isn’t hard to decode. Every dog—regardless of size, floofiness, or derpiness—can be a doggo. If you’re willing to get creative, the word can even be applied to non-dog animals like fennec foxes (special doggos) or seals (water doggos). The usage of doggo saw a spike in 2016 thanks to the internet and by the end of 2017 it was listed as one of Merriam-Webster’s “Words We’re Watching.”


Tiny kitten in grass.

Some pets are so adorably, unbearably tiny that using proper English to describe them just doesn’t cut it. Not every small pet is smol: To earn the label, a cat or dog (or kitten or puppy) must excel in both the tiny and cute departments. A pet that’s truly smol is likely to induce excited squees from everyone around it.


Hands holding a puppy.

Like doggo, pupper is self-explanatory: It can be used in place of the word puppy, but if you want to use it to describe a fully-grown doggo who’s particularly smol and cute, you can probably get away with it.

10. BOOF

We’ve already established that doggos go bork, but that’s not the only sound they make. A low, deep bark—perhaps from a dog that can’t decide if it wants to expend its energy on a full bark—is best described as a boof. Consider a boof a warning bark before the real thing.


Dog noses poking out beneath blanket.

Snoot was already a dictionary-official synonym for nose by the time dog meme culture took the internet by storm. But while snoot is rarely used to describe human faces today, it’s quickly becoming the preferred term for pet snouts. There’s even a wholesome viral challenge dedicated to dogs poking their snoots through their owners' hands.

12. BOOP

Have you ever seen a dog snoot so cute you just had to reach out and tap it? And when you did, was your action accompanied by an involuntary “boop” sound? This urge is so universal that boop is now its own verb. Humans aren’t the only ones who can boop: Search the word on YouTube and treat yourself to hours of dogs, cats, and other animals exchanging the love tap.


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