Monday, August 2, 2004; Page A10
Biologists Locate White Elephant
Wildlife biologists in Sri Lanka say they have confirmed for the first time the existence of a long-fabled white elephant.
The albino elephant, a female believed to be about 11 years old, was observed in mid-July in a herd of about 17 adult females and young elephants in Yala, Sri Lanka, according to Wildlife Trust of Palisades, N.Y., and the Centre for Conservation and Research of Colombo, Sri Lanka, two conservation groups.
Researchers from the groups have studied elephant ecology and behavior for the past 12 years to determine how the country's 3,500 elephants survive in the midst of Sri Lanka's agricultural expansion.
Although there have been reported sightings of white elephants in Thailand and elsewhere, this marks the first time the existence of a true albino elephant has been confirmed, according to Wildlife Trust president Mary Pearl.
Researchers call her Sue, which is shorthand for white in Sinhalese.
Sue's discovery will make it easier for scientists to track the matriarchal group to better "understand the movement of the family groups and their nutritional needs and habitat needs in a changing landscape," Pearl said. Sue's lack of pigmentation indicates inbreeding, Pearl noted.
In the West, the phrase "white elephant" connotes a rare and expensive possession that is hard to maintain. But in Eastern mythology, they are more coveted. Pearl said she hopes Sue's discovery "will help reinvigorate the reverence elephants have traditionally enjoyed in Sri Lanka."
According to Buddhist lore, Queen Mahamaya dreamt of a white baby elephant at the conception of Lord Buddha. And in Thailand any white elephant discovered becomes the property of the king.
-- Juliet Eilperin
Pigeons Use Roads, Report Says
Scientists concluded long ago that homing pigeons make it home because of a "map and compass" technique, using the sun and an internal clock to pick the right direction, then zeroing in on their loft with a combination of visual and other sensory cues.
Demonstrating this process has proved difficult, because pigeons are not easy to follow, but a team of scientists led by the University of Zurich's Hans-Peter Lipp has managed it by outfitting the birds with tiny "path loggers" hooked into the global positioning system.
What they found, though, confirmed what pigeon fanciers have said for years: Pigeons like to follow the highway.
Lipp's birds, 34 veteran homers working near Rome over three years, picked roads or the railway between 40 percent and 50 percent of the time, even though they weren't the shortest routes.
"Pigeons can find the loft by using an apparently compass-based flight orientation, but appear to prefer a road-following strategy," the authors noted last week in the journal Current Biology. "They also seem to have a predilection for large, or four-lane, highways."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company