Dr. Chase LaDue, postdoctoral fellow in animal behavior at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden in Oklahoma City, Okla., led a study published in Theriogenology Wild, a scientific journal for wildlife reproduction research, about the range of changes in male Asian elephants during musth in human care and wild populations.
Male elephants regularly undergo musth, a hormonal cycle lasting approximately 1 to 3 months. Musth has been studied extensively in wild African elephants, but little is known about the reproductive phenomenon in Asian elephants. To help fill this information gap, Dr. LaDue, with collaborators from George Mason University, Rajarata University of Sri Lanka, and White Oak Conservation Foundation in Florida, conducted a large study that analyzed the behavior and physiology of 26 male Asian elephants at zoos across the country during musth through observations and by collecting biological samples. As a comparison, the same methodology was used to study musth in wild elephants in Sri Lanka.
Researchers found that in addition to the pungent chemical signals that males produce to advertise their reproductive condition, musth is also associated with behavioral and hormonal changes. During musth, bull elephants experience a surge in hormones like testosterone, amplifying their physical behavior and increasing their interest in female elephants. In response to these hormonal changes, males spent less time feeding and more time walking. The similarities the researchers documented between elephants in human care and those living in Sri Lanka suggest that zoo professionals successfully manage the complex behavioral needs of male elephants during musth.
Once thought to be almost completely solitary, animal experts now know that male elephants are social opportunists, choosing to spend time alone, with females, and as part of all-male groups. Elephant experts are using this new data about social complexity and musth to provide enhanced wellbeing for male elephants in human care.
“Male elephants require specialized care in zoos, in part because of challenges during musth,” said Dr. LaDue. “This research helps caretakers predict how male elephants will respond internally and externally during reproductively active periods, allowing them to provide enhanced daily care and ensure the sustainability of the species. Additionally, because it is relatively easy to observe elephants and collect biological samples in settings like the OKC Zoo, we can learn so much from elephants in human care. These animals act as excellent ambassadors for their wild counterparts for the benefit of both populations.”
Asian elephants are endangered and face unique challenges including human-elephant conflict. Male elephants are likely to wander during musth and feed on human crops creating such conflict. Conservationists in range countries can tackle this conflict by implementing data from this study to develop effective conservation strategies to save threatened populations.
Home to a multigenerational herd of eight Asian elephants, the Oklahoma City Zoo is a leader in Asian elephant care, research, and conservation. The Zoo is committed to protecting this endangered species and its habitat through its global partnerships. Asian elephant populations in the wild have fallen below 40,000 individuals. The 13 nations that make up the natural habitat of Asian elephants contain the densest human population on the planet. As a result, vital habitat for elephants has been reduced by 85% in 40 years.
Since 2010, the Zoo has contributed more than $400,000 to elephant-related conservation. In addition to supporting the Northern Rangelands Trust since 2009, which protects elephants and other native species in Kenya, the Zoo partnered with the Rainforest Trust to purchase and preserve 13,000 acres of forest in central Sumatra and 18,000 acres of forest in Borneo, both of which are natural habitats for Asian elephants. The Zoo has also supported the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Rakhine Yoma Elephant Range Project in Myanmar and International Elephant Foundation’s conservation efforts in Sumatra. These projects support boots-on-the-ground teams that work to protect forests, prevent poaching and habitat encroachment.
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