An elephant in India seems to have a smoking habit. Conservation scientists spotted the pachyderm hoisting chunks of ashen wood into its mouth and then blowing out puffs of smoke.
"I believe the elephant may have been trying to ingest wood charcoal," Varun Goswami, Wildlife Conservation Society's (WCS) India program scientist and an elephant biologist, said in a statement. "She appeared to be picking up pieces from the forest floor, blowing away the ash that came along with it, and consuming the rest."
Goswami, an elephant biologist, and his team came across what they are calling the "smoke-breathing" elephant in Nagarahole National Park while checking their "hidden" cameras (also called camera traps) as part of a study of tigers and their prey.
During their forest trek, they saw the elephant standing in a "burnt patch" of the woods. "In India, the Forest Department burns fire lines to create fire breaks that can help control forest fires," Vinay Kumar, assistant director of WCS-India, told Live Science. "And this effort leaves behind wood charcoal on the forest floor."
Eating charcoal — which is made mostly of carbon and formed from the heating of wood in low-oxygen conditions — is not unheard of. Colobus monkeys apparently consume such char, possibly to counteract toxins in some of the foods they eat. Scientists reported in 1997 in the International Journal of Primatology they'd found that the Zanzibar red colobus monkey may be the only primate (excluding humans) that intentionally chomps down on charcoal. The charcoal-eating likely allows the monkeys to consume Indian almond and mango trees, which are chockful of phenols, a group of chemical compounds that apparently can be toxic and even mess with the monkeys' digestive systems. The charcoal, they said, binds to the phenols while leaving the protein in the exotic tree food alone.
Perhaps, this elephant caught on to the benefits of a little charcoal.
"Charcoal has toxin-binding properties that may provide medicinal value," Goswami said, adding that it can also act as a laxative.
Original article on Live Science.
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Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.