Children’s book by Stanford researcher chronicles a baby elephant’s life

June 30th, 2014

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In the new children’s book written by CAITLIN O’CONNELL, a consulting assistant professor at Stanford Medical School, the adorable baby Liza steals every scene – taking her first steps, playing with other babies, taking a bath, letting her older brother help her get to her feet.

Except the baby at the center of this captivating story weighs 250 pounds, learns how to walk on four legs within hours of her birth, greets other babies by placing her trunk in their mouths, and takes a bath by rolling in a cool mud puddle in the African savannah.

A Baby Elephant in the Wild, written for preschool through elementary school readers, features Liza, an African elephant born in Etosha National Park in Namibia.

O’Connell and her husband, TIMOTHY RODWELL, an assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego, have been taking pictures of Liza since her birth.

Liza’s arrival marked the first time that O’Connell has been able to follow the growth of one specific elephant from birth during the 20 years she has devoted to studying elephant behavior and conservation. O’Connell has a research station in the park.

Each photograph in the book is a marvel, from a sequence of pictures of a tiny Liza rolling in the mud in the shadow of her 8,000-pound mother’s legs to group photos of the young elephant and her extended family relaxing in the dappled shade of an acacia grove.

The book introduces young readers to how elephants live in the wild:

“A layer of mud is not just fun – it also helps protect an elephant’s skin from parasites and sunburns.”

“While resting in the shade, elephant mothers will stand facing outward, on guard while baby elephants either lie down or lean against their mothers to sleep. Flapping their ears while resting helps baby elephants cool down.”

“Elephants have an aquatic ancestry, so it makes sense that they like the water and are good swimmers. In fact, they use their trunk as a snorkel when swimming in deep water.”

Gently imparting a message about conservation, the book says that Liza’s mother knows how to protect her from danger and even trouble within the family, but she won’t be able to protect her from disease or starvation in the years ahead. The book notes:

“Too many fires, a bad drought, and the cutting down of forests to make room for crops are some of the reasons why an elephant might not have enough food to survive. Poachers looking for either meat or ivory also threaten elephants in the wild. In some areas, elephants are risk of going extinct if they are not better protected.”

Through their nonprofit organization, Utopia Scientific, O’Connell and Rodwell are conducting an ongoing study of elephants in partnership with Stanford and with support from the Oakland Zoo. Learn more about O’Connell and her other books, including The Elephant’s Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa and, for young readers, The Elephant Scientist, on her website.

— BY KATHLEEN J. SULLIVAN