The Oklahoma City Zoo is a leader in elephant care, research and conservation, and with the recent arrival of Bowie (9), the OKC Zoo now houses three male Asian elephants (also called “bulls”). Once thought to be almost completely solitary, we now know that male elephants are social opportunists, often switching between spending time alone, with females, and as part of all-male groups. With all this social complexity, it also means that male elephants in human care require specialized care. Recently, the Zoo participated in a large study that analyzed the behavior and physiology of male elephants at zoos around the country and even wild elephants in Sri Lanka.
Part of the challenge in caring for male elephants is that they regularly undergo musth (pronounced “must”), a hormonal cycle, that lasts for approximately 1 to 3 months. During musth, bull elephants experience a surge in hormones like testosterone, amplifying their physical behavior and increasing their interest in female elephants. Female elephants seem to prefer spending time with male elephants when they’re in musth, and musth males outcompete other males for access to females. Males advertise their condition during musth by secreting an oily substance from glands on either side of their heads and continuously dribbling urine down their back legs. It’s all completely natural, and even male elephants in zoos exhibit musth to appear more attractive to the females.
While musth has been studied extensively in African elephants in the wild, we know relatively little about musth in Asian elephants. To fill in this knowledge gap, the OKC Zoo’s Postdoctoral Fellow in Animal Behavior, Dr. Chase LaDue, along with collaborators from George Mason University in Virginia, Rajarata University of Sri Lanka, and White Oak Conservation Foundation in Florida, sought to learn more about how male Asian elephants alter their behavior during musth and what hormonal changes and other factors may be contributing to this. From ten different zoos and 26 male elephants including the Zoo’s male elephants, Rex (55) and Kandula (20), they conducted hundreds of hours of observations and, with the help of animal caretakers, collected thousands of biological samples. As a comparison, they used the same methodology to study musth from wild elephants in Sri Lanka over a period of six months.
The researchers found that in addition to the chemical signals that males produce, musth is also associated with a characteristic behavioral profile. Musth male elephants in human care and the wild tend to eat less often (even if there is abundant food available) and explore their environments more by smelling around and walking long distances, presumably to increase the likelihood they find a receptive mate. Additionally, these behavioral changes are accompanied by hormonal changes: testosterone surges and glucocorticoid activity (hormones associated with the physiological stress response) is also altered. Other factors like a male’s body condition and other elephants around him also influence the behavioral and hormonal profile that occurs during musth. The similarities the researchers documented between zoo elephants and elephants living in Sri Lanka suggest that zoos are doing a good job of meeting the complex behavioral needs of male elephants.
WHY DOES IT ALL MATTER?
Asian elephants are endangered, and human–elephant conflict is a big problem for the long-term existence of the species. During this conflict, elephants often will wander from protected areas into agriculture to feed on human crops. Male elephants are particularly likely to engage in this conflict as they seek easy sources of nutrition to sustain their musth status. Therefore, to effectively tackle this conflict, conservationists across Asia may want to focus on males, especially those during musth. Learning about a species’ basic biology and natural history is a critical first step in developing effective conservation strategies to save threatened populations.
However, it can be difficult to study Asian elephants in the dense forests of their native ranges. That’s where zoos come in. The OKC Zoo has always been committed to supporting research that helps enhance the lives of wildlife in our care and around the world. For most elephants living in zoos, we know their complete life histories, and researchers can more readily conduct behavioral observations and collect biological samples. Anything we learn from elephants in human care can be directly applied to research and conservation in the field, and this project is evidence of that. Further, with the context of how wild elephants respond to changes in their habitats, we can ensure that we provide male elephants living in zoos with dynamic, enriching environments so that they thrive.
The OKC Zoo strives to continually make advancements in the wellbeing of all the animals in our care, and elephants are no exception. As the newest elephant to call the OKC Zoo home, Bowie is still in the process of meeting the other elephants that will become his herd. Along with the elephant caretakers, Dr. LaDue will be monitoring this introduction process, providing the animal management team with information to make decisions guided by scientific data. Bowie is too young to go through musth, unlike Kandula and Rex who each regularly experience musth. However, as Bowie matures into an adult male elephant—with all the behavioral and physiological changes that go along with that—the Zoo will be equipped with the tools to apply what we’ve learned among our own team and from others around the world.
- Dr. Chase LaDue, Postdoctoral Fellow in Animal Behavior