The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research works closely with the elephants both at the Zoo and the Safari Park. We consider research an important part of advancing elephant care and welfare, as well as providing us with opportunities to apply what we can learn about elephants here to those in the wild. Our most current project looks at the effects of quality versus quantity of exhibit space on elephant behavior, walking rates, and stress-related hormones in an effort to improve the welfare of elephants in zoos. Elephants need a good amount of space to fulfill their physical and psychological needs. However, space may not be of any use to an elephant if it is predictable. An elephant may benefit more from a smaller, more dynamic space (quality) rather than a larger, less dynamic space (quantity).
The Safari Park’s African elephants have access to both the east and west yards via a hydraulic gate. This gate makes it easy to manipulate the space, or quantity, of the exhibit for this study. To manipulate the quality of the space, we present controlled food enrichment. Using five different manipulations of food enrichment and available space two times a week for three trial periods, we can assess the relationships between quality and quantity.
Each manipulation lasts 22 hours. I come in to do observations in two- and-a-half-hour shifts three times to assess the elephants’ activity patterns and behavioral diversity. (This is when you might see me on Elephant Cam!). Eight of the elephants are equipped with GPS tracking anklets. With the help of some innovative thinking, we have designed an anklet to house the GPS device as an alternative to the typical collar devices. The device records the coordinates of the elephant wearing it every five seconds. At the end of the 22 hours, the GPS data is downloaded and sorted, and walking rates along with distance can be calculated.
Lastly, in order to examine the stress levels of the elephants, we collect both fecal and saliva samples representative of the time period of interest. Using both techniques allows us not only to gain a more robust picture of the amount of stress hormones present but also gives our endocrinologist an opportunity to perfect and define the methodology of these hormones via saliva samples, a technique which has been understudied in elephants.
It takes a lot of people (and elephants!) to make a study successful. The Elephant Team plays a huge role in helping us design and achieve solid research that can help elephants in a variety of places and situations. So far for this project, we have already found some potentially interesting results in regard to our elephants’ walking rates. I am excited to carry forward with the trials of the project. Stay tuned for another blog update when the study is finished!
Charlotte Hacker is a research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.