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Elephant Health and Reproduction

The Endocrine Research Lab is the only facility in the United States that provides extensive monitoring services for tracking zoo elephant reproductive health. Janine Brown and her staff work with dozens of zoos to conduct hormone evaluations to assess the reproductive status of hundreds of female elephants.

More than 60 percent of elephants living in US zoos are being monitored. The results are proving to be a major asset in the effort to increase reproduction.

Lab service provided to zoos worldwide includes:

Through its Elephant Reproduction Project, the National Zoo’s endocrine lab was the first to determine how to accurately predict ovulation in female elephants by monitoring their hormones. This development was significant—successful insemination must take place during a two- or three-day window around the time of ovulation, when fertilization is most likely. Endocrine lab scientists measure steroid hormone metabolites excreted in urine and feces in order to document reproductive cycles and the timing of ovulation.

The Zoo has assisted in more than a dozen artificial inseminations at other zoos, several of which resulted in pregnancy. In 2000, scientists and veterinarians at the National Zoo performed an artificial insemination that resulted in the 2001 birth of the Zoo’s male elephant, Kandula. Analyzing hormone patterns also enables Zoo researchers to monitor pregnancies, predict births, and assess thyroid and adrenal gland function.

The endocrine lab at the National Zoo aims to use its research to enhance elephant conservation and captive management.

Projects

Specifically our team of National Zoo reproductive physiologists, veterinarians, pathologists, geneticists and nutritionists are working on projects including:

  • Identifying factors that affect animal health and fitness and link those results to a detailed assessment of what causes stress in elephants and how it can be reduced
  • Increasing breeding success for Asian elephants through hormone studies and research about assisted reproductive techniques.
  • Providing diagnostic services and support for breeding programs to zoos nationwide with our laboratories
  • Developing novel diagnostic tools for detection of elephant pathogens
  • Developing diet and exercise protocols and treatment tools against the deadly elephant herpes virus
  • Advancing our well-developed veterinary treatments for major elephant diseases and health problems, such as herpes, TB, arthritis, and infections

We’re not just working on elephants in zoos. We also work to improve the health and well-being of working elephants in Asia. We train veterinarians in Asia, apply our laboratory techniques to better understand the health of free-ranging elephants, and reduce threats posed by disease such as tuberculosis and the herpes virus.