An examination of salivary cortisol concentrations and behavior in three captive african elephants (loxodonta africana) at zoo atlanta
Kelling, Angela Swilley
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Salivary cortisol is becoming an effective method with which to quantify cortisol levels, including the ability to track diurnal patterns and acute stress fluctuations. The purpose of this study was to validate salivary cortisol for use in African elephants (Loxodonta Africana), establish baseline cortisol values in three African elephants at Zoo Atlanta and explore the relationship between cortisol and various behaviors and husbandry events. Elephant salivary cortisol was found to be a valid measure based on correlations with serum cortisol and serial dilution results. Salivary cortisol also decreased across the day, but no definitive patterns were revealed. Using baseline values, salivary cortisol was used to examine the effects of enrichment, maintenance and novel training, and a mild stressor. Maintenance training was found to lead to lower cortisol values than novel training. Salivary cortisol after enrichment did not differ from individual overall means. The mild stressor initiated a rise in salivary cortisol. The final focus of this study was to investigate the link between salivary cortisol and stereotypic behavior. Stereotypies are described as repetitive behaviors with little variance and no discernible function or goal. There is not a straightforward relationship between stereotypies and welfare. Analysis of salivary cortisol at various durations into swaying bouts established that swaying appears to decrease cortisol levels. Additionally, behavioral data were collected. Behavioral data confirmed anecdotal reports of circular dominance in these animals. Behavioral data also revealed that although these individuals spend the majority of their time consuming food, one individual in particular devotes a significant amount of her time to swaying, a percentage much higher than that found when Wilson, Bloomsmith, and Maple (2004) examined stereotypic swaying rates in these same animals. Results of this study have direct ramifications for the current management requirements for captive elephants around the world. It helps tap into aspects of psychological well being of captive elephants to elucidate factors influencing welfare and stereotypic behavior. Research of this nature is a critical endeavor if we are to appropriately manage these magnificent animals in captivity.