Zoo elephants showed more signs of rocking and swaying behavior when in isolation and more happy when socializing in large groups.
The amount of space an elephant requires in a zoo environment has often been the upmost importance to keeping the massive animals happy but it seems elephants are more concerned with the social aspects of zoo life than the amount of space they have.
A new study carried out mainly from the University of California, has revealed a more varied amount of interaction with other elephants and to surroundings make for much happier elephants.
The research was one of the largest of its kind with nine separate studies that looked at 255 African and Asian elephants kept in captivity at 68 North American zoos. The researchers focused on welfare factors such as behavior, body health, female reproductive health and the distances they could walk.
They found elephants that spend time alone is a massive risk factor in their behavior and showed those that spent more time in large groups especially with young calves, had a positive effect on elephants. The results have shown the importance of social interaction for elephants and shown an important issue of social management that zoos must put more focus into.
Cheryl Meehan, a UC Davis staff research associate in the Department of Population Health and Reproduction, School of Veterinary Medicine, said the research showed space was surprisingly not as influential on the elephants as previously thought. It has often been debated between scientists and wildlife preservationists that the amount of space an elephant needs is paramount to it’s welfare.
“We expected to find associations between the size of zoo exhibits and welfare, but space ended up being of minor importance when compared to social factors and management practices such as enrichment programs.”
Elephants showed more signs of repetitive rocking and swaying behavior when in isolation compared with spending time with other elephants. They also found individual elephants make use of their space differently and created a new measure called Space Experience that takes into account the size and personality of an elephant.
Details of the study were published in the journal PLOS One.