Study of Orphaned Elephants Surprises Researchers

If they stay with a pack, they don't seem to be stressed out more than non-orphaned peers
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 18, 2022 10:30 AM CDT
Study of Orphaned Elephants Surprises Researchers
Stock photo.   (Getty/AndreAnita)

Researchers who set out to measure the stress levels of orphaned elephants expected to see sky-high levels because of the particularly strong bond evident between mother elephants and their offspring. "Until age 8 or 9, elephants are rarely more than 10 meters from their mother," Jenna Parker of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and Colorado State University tells National Geographic. But the 13-month-long study she led ended up having something of a happy surprise: Orphaned elephants who were adopted by another family member eventually showed no worse stress levels than non-orphaned elephants.

The research team discovered this by gathering dung samples from 25 orphans and 12 non-orphans on the African savanna between 2015 and 2016, then testing the samples for a stress hormone called glucocorticoid metabolite, per a release at Researchers found no significant difference in GCM levels between the two groups, though they noted that orphaned elephants living among larger packs tended to fare better. Also, elephants of both the orphan and non-orphan variety that had companions their own age—playmates—had the lowest stress levels of all.

In researcher-speak, this comes out in the study published in Communications Biology in the dry line: "The presence of age mates may reduce glucocorticoid concentrations in elephants, and emphasize that basic survival needs are the primary regulators of the stress response." The story at National Geographic paraphrases: "In short, elephants may get by with a little help from their friends." The study could have implications for the care of elephants in human-run rehabilitation centers, notes AFP. It could also guide how those elephants are eventually released back into the wild. (More elephants stories.)

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