[ Project Watch ]

Secret Lives of Elephants

Ginormous: Elephants actually can eat up to 900 pounds of food. A day.

Ginormous: Elephants actually can eat up to 900 pounds of food. A day.

What do JavaScript, Loxodonta, GPS, convergent evolution, SQL APIs, and 11-pound brains have to do with one another? In one mapping experiment involving African bull elephants, each of these elements is caught in a lovely conspiracy that points to the storytelling power of data.

As recently reported by Spaceforgiants.org, information transmitted by GPS collars fitted onto five bull elephants inhabiting the Laikipia County area of central Kenya captured their roaming habits, reflecting memory, education, spatial understanding—and mischief.

Green Zone: By day, the animals stay in designated areas. Night, however, is a different story.

Green Zone: By day, the animals stay in designated areas. Night, however, is a different story.

Over the course of a year, some 35,000 GPS data points were gathered from SMS information sent from the collars to a server. Space for Giants asked the good folk at Wildermaps to take 365 days’ worth of Loxodontal travel and compress it into an understandable rhythm. The resulting 35k dots make for an antic map of diurnal and nocturnal movement.

Surrounded by the trappings of human civilization, particularly some alluringly planted croplands, the elephants-as-dots are swiftly animated on the map as they go about their daily rounds.

And they do keep a schedule. Elephants, after all, can happily consume up to 900 pounds of food each day; looking for it in a limited space is a fairly full time job. The animals restrict themselves to their own lands during the full light of day before making calculated dashes onto the cultivars as soon as it is safely dark enough. Use the map’s zoom feature to swoop down far enough to the earth and you can make out the animal’s forms and see their well-trod paths.

The visualization was built with CartoDB’s experimental new Torque JavaScript library. There you can see the ATM coverage around the Spanish city of Madrid and trace the Rolling Stones’ touring path for the last 50 years. It’s worth a moment to swing over to CartoDB as they offer a free map-making trial that you can use to upload your own data into graphic form.

Because you might decide to fit some of the largest mammals currently living on land with tracking tools and make a beautiful something out of it by using data to tell a revealing story.