For Release: September 2010
Karin Korpowski-Gallo (202) 633-3082 or or (202) 904-8724
Communications Office (202) 633-3055
The Smithsonian’s National Zoo is a leader in elephant conservation and science. These majestic animals are an important part of the ecosystems in the wild. African elephants are a threatened species, while Asian elephants are endangered. That’s why the National Zoo has a dedicated team of scientists working to understand the biology, reproductive physiology, veterinary medicine and genetics of Asian elephants using the three elephants at the Zoo—Ambika, Shanthi and Kandula—as well as elephants at other zoos and in the field in their native lands. What the Zoo’s researchers learn is applied to conservation efforts in elephant-range countries and to the captive management of elephants in zoos.
Some of the elephant science and conservation efforts at the Zoo include:
Elephant Reproduction Project: Through its Elephant Reproduction Project, the 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 Zoo performed an artificial insemination that resulted in the birth of the Zoo’s now 8-year-old 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 Zoo uses its research to enhance elephant conservation and captive management.
Veterinary Care: The Zoo’s veterinary team is committed to excellence in elephant care, training and research through its thorough preventative medicine program (including vaccines and trunk washes), training programs for graduate and international veterinarians and its research studies. Recent research includes investigations into the pharmacokinetics of antibiotic usage in elephants, novel diagnostic techniques using digital radiography to examine foot bone health and structure, as well as ongoing investigations into the effects of a GnRH (gonadotropin releasing hormone) vaccine on Asian elephant reproductive cycling. This treatment shows great promise for management of uterine pathology as well as contraception in elephants.
Genetics: Researchers use noninvasive techniques to answer questions about elephant disease, evolution and genealogy in addition to drawing blood for studies. They collect DNA from items that the animals leave behind, including feces (scat, dung), hair, saliva or shed skin, which makes it easier to collect samples in the field. The Zoo’s genetics lab has conducted systematic and phylogeographic analyses on Asian elephants to answer questions related to the genetic diversity of Asian elephants and the need to preserve them.
Geneticists at the Zoo recently successfully analyzed part of the complex gene family that helps determine how resistant elephants are to the type of infectious diseases that have been devastating to their species, including tuberculosis and the herpesvirus. Smithsonian researchers, with collaborators, were the first in the world to “characterize,” or interpret and describe, these genes in elephants. During this work, Zoo researchers also found that Asian and African elephants may have evolved genetically in response to a past disease epidemic.
Elephant Herpes: Researchers at the Zoo discovered and identified elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus, which is responsible for about half of the deaths of young elephants in zoos. The Zoo’s National Elephant Herpesvirus Laboratory is the principal resource for herpesvirus information, testing and research for the global elephant community. The lab focuses on providing diagnostics for all elephant-holding facilities in North America, and focuses on research, training and the development of tests for new types of EEHV. The ultimate goal of the NEHL is to prevent future deaths due to this devastating disease, and to this end has assisted in establishing EEHV diagnostic labs in Germany, the Netherlands, the U.K. and India. Researchers are still trying to determine why some elephants get the disease while others do not.
Geographic Information Systems Monitoring: Asian elephant habitat has declined by 70 percent during the past 30 years, and presently fewer than 40,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild. Habitat loss is the single most important factor in this species’ plight. Scientists at the Zoo’s Geographic Information Systems lab are using satellite imagery and ground studies to quantify habitat loss in various locations in Asia. The lab is mapping extant habitats and tracking the movements of individual elephants to develop conservation and management strategies that are essential for the survival of wild populations. By collaborating with NASA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey, Zoo scientists use vast amounts of remotely collected satellite images that show the condition of large and inaccessible areas for Asian elephants, in addition to other species.
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