National Zoo Is Part of Elephant Study Awarded Prestigious Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s endocrinology laboratory is set to play a vital role in what will be the most comprehensive and collaborative study on elephant welfare in zoos—a project funded by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services with the Honolulu Zoo serving as principal investigator.

The seven partners involved will use the $816,000 National Leadership grant from IMLS to collect and integrate a wide spectrum of behavioral, health and well-being measures of the nearly 290 Asian and African elephants in zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

The science-based study will evaluate elephant welfare along a quality continuum, assessing the impact of zoo management practices by looking at the elephants’ responses to differences in practices among zoos. When complete, the study will provide zoos around the world with information that will contribute to their ongoing efforts to ensure elephant well-being. The three-year study is scheduled to begin Dec. 1.

“Zoos across the country want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to have healthy and happy elephants under managed care,” said Janine Brown, head of SCBI’s endocrinology lab. “To do so, we have to have a scientific basis for the decisions that we make. We know a lot of zoos are doing a lot of things right, but we’re going to use science to look at what we could be doing even better.”

Using sophisticated computer modeling, researchers involved in the project will be able to take the extensive data they collect to establish benchmarks for the health, emotions and behaviors of elephants in zoos across the country. SCBI’s endocrinology lab will be looking at elephant blood, feces and saliva to provide a holistic picture of the health and welfare of the animals from a physiological standpoint. Specifically, the endocrinology lab will analyze samples to produce data related to body condition and nutritional status, metabolic activity and reproductive status, in addition to several hormones associated with stress.

“This is the largest study of its kind in terms of the breadth of the information that we’re gathering on any one species,” Brown said. “The approach that we’re using is not only going to be useful for elephants, but it could be applied to any number of other species.”

In addition, the three Asian elephants at the National Zoo, Shanthi, Kandula and Ambika, will participate in the study.

National Leadership Grants, which make up the largest museum and library joint grant program that IMLS administers, support projects that will advance the ability of museums and libraries to preserve culture, heritage and knowledge, while enhancing learning.

“National Leadership grantees help us better understand and advance best practice in museums, libraries and archives,” said IMLS Acting Director Marsha L. Semmel. “We look forward to much exciting work, including projects that will study the effects of climate change on plants, bring new health information to visitors through partnerships with the local research community and develop new models for serving the baby boom generation.”

Partners on the National Leadership grant for the zoo elephant study are Honolulu Zoo, Chicago Zoological Society, Smithsonian’s National Zoo, Oregon Zoo, Toledo Zoo, University of California-Davis and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Additional consultants include scientists at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Palm Beach Zoo, Columbus Zoo, University of British Columbia, University of Guelph and George Mason University.