Elephant trunks serve many purposes—breathing, grasping and communicating among them—but a new study from Oklahoma City Zoo scientists shows off the olfactory prowess of the animals and could lead to new ways to protect the endangered species. 

As a conservation organization, the OKC Zoo supports research to improve the future of our world’s vanishing wildlife and wild places. The Zoo’s Postdoctoral Fellow in Animal Behavior, Dr. Chase LaDue and Senior Director of Conservation, Education, and Science, Dr. Rebecca Snyder, were recently published in Biology Letters (ISSN, online, 1744-957X), a Royal Society journal focused on research across the biological sciences, for their research about the advanced sensory abilities of elephants and how they use odors to identify unfamiliar elephants, a first time this has been studied in Asian elephants in human care or wild populations. Read the complete study here.

Asian elephants are known for their keen sense of smell. They use odors to find food, navigate their surroundings, avoid threats, assess potential mates, and, as this study proposes, to identify unfamiliar elephants by their individual odors. In order to gain this information, Dr. LaDue conducted a study that analyzed the behavior of six Asian elephants at the Oklahoma City Zoo including males Rex, Kandula, and Bowie and females Chandra, Asha, and Achara after they were exposed to urine from unfamiliar male elephants. 

Dr. LaDue collaborated with Denver Zoo, an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited zoo, to receive urine samples from their male Asian elephants that the OKC Zoo’s elephants had never met. For six days, the Zoo’s elephants were exposed to urine samples in a controlled manner that allowed Zoo experts to observe how the elephants responded to odor and record each individual animal’s behavior.

Researchers found that all six of the Zoo’s participating elephants indicated an ability to differentiate odors based on Denver Zoo’s elephants’ reproductive status (musth and non-musth) and individual identity. These results demonstrate the remarkable sensory abilities of elephants and have promising implications for elephant conservation.

“The sensory world of elephants is very different from that of humans. Elephants depend much more than we do upon odors to understand each other and the environment,” said Dr. LaDue. “Our study provides evidence that the odors that elephants produce can also be used as individualized olfactory “name tags.” As we seek to better understand the complex sensory and social lives of elephants, new information like this can help us to develop conservation action plans for this endangered species."

Asian elephants are endangered, facing ever-changing environments and challenges including human-elephant conflict that threaten the species’ survival. Male elephants are likely to wander during musth and feed on human crops, creating such conflict. Information from this study could assist conservationists in range countries with developing new conservation strategies using odors to deter elephants from approaching crops and farmlands. Such actions are necessary for conserving wild elephant populations.

Home to a multigenerational herd of eight Asian elephants, the OKC Zoo is committed to the care and conservation of this endangered species and its habitats. The Zoo works with global conservation partners and supports ongoing research to ensure a sustainable future for Asian elephants. 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 populations on the planet and, as a result, vital habitat for elephants has been reduced by 85% in 40 years. Asian elephants are also susceptible to EEHV, a fast-moving elephant herpes virus that affects elephants in the wild and in human care with a 60% fatality rate.

Over the last two decades, the Zoo has contributed more than $450,000 to elephant-related conservation. The Zoo has supported a number of elephant conservation projects is Asia that protect habitat with boots-on-the-ground teams that work to mitigate human-elephant conflict, prevent poaching, and reduce habitat encroachment. The Zoo is currently the only AZA zoo leading research in Sri Lanka to better understand Asian elephant social relationships, land use and the impacts of tourism. Results from this research will help inform wild elephant management in Sri Lanka, which has high levels of human-elephant conflict. Additionally, the OKC Zoo proudly participates in the AZA’s Species Survival Plan®(SSP) for Asian elephants and supports AZA’s SAFE: Saving Animals from Extinction program for Asian elephants and its strategic conservation education efforts.

The Oklahoma City Zoo is in its winter hours and open Thursdays through Mondays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily with the last entry no later than 4 p.m. The Zoo is closed to the public during daytime hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays through February 7, 2024. Purchase advance tickets for general admission at www.okczoo.org/tickets. Located at the crossroads of I-44 and I-35, the OKC Zoo is a proud member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the American Alliance of Museums, Oklahoma City’s Adventure District and an Adventure Road partner.

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