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Small Steps, Big Impact

Editor’s Letter

I recently read an article about how Asian elephants mourn the dead—how they kick, nudge, and shake the carcass, perhaps in hopes of having them rise up again. In some cases, female elephants have been observed to use their trunks to carry their dead calves around.

Apparently, this observation is nothing new in the animal kingdom. Apes and monkeys, and even dolphins and whales hold on to their deceased infants. For elephants, the carrying of calves is not a usual behaviour as the calves would usually follow the herd on their own. Dr. Sanjeeta Pokharel mentioned in The New York Times that this carrying “can indicate they are aware that there’s something wrong with the calf.”

From this, I was reminded of a video clip from Spy in the Wild by the BBC, where Langur monkeys mistake a robotic spy monkey for a baby monkey that died when the robot fell from a height. Laying the robot monkey flat on the ground, the other Langur monkeys soon gathered around the “carcass”, touching and sniffing it, and was later seen holding one another close.

We often think grief is a human emotion, yet it seems almost universal. Watching how animals react to death makes me wonder a little deeper about their cognitive abilities and how such events might affect them psychologically. I think it is important to remind ourselves of these things when we think about the changing climate, habitat loss, and the pollution of our environment.

Keeping these things in mind, in this issue, we consider how technology, for better or for worse, allows us to engineer a future where we can grow crops in the ocean, save endangered animals, and possibly even bring extinct animals back to life.

Other research highlights include developing an enzyme to break down lignin for biofuel, modifying leaf angles to increase crop yield, and upcycling carbon dioxide into value-added products.

When we reflect on how our actions influence our environment, how it may affect other animals, who may have greater cognitive abilities than we give them credit for, and then consider the technology at our disposal to improve the world around us and the different socio-economic factors at play, we see how policy work is further complicated through the need to draw a fine balance between the two.

And while research work might feel far away from us non-scientists, there are many ongoing initiatives that we can support and take part in: Seastainable Co.’s Blue Carbon Package and Coral Restoration Plan, Singapore Garden City Fund’s Plant-a-Tree Programme, and volunteering at Animal Concerns Research & Education Society (ACRES). Let us remember that just as in scientific progress, a small step forward in conservation goes a long way.

Carmen Chan