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Learning from a Baby Elephant

Staff at the Oregon Zoo have teamed up with conservation biologists at the University of Portland to study "baby" elephant Samudra, who was born around this time last year. The research is behavioral, tracking the growing boy's habits throughout the day and analyzing how those habits change over the course of his first year. The results will be shared with other zoos to help ensure successful births and rearing. Learn more below the fold.

Baby elephant calf samudra oregon zoo rs

OREGON ZOO ELEPHANT STUDY AIMS TO PROMOTE SPECIES SURVIVAL Zoo and University of Portland team up to study "Baby" Samudra PORTLAND, Ore. -

Elephant births are rare events, so Oregon Zoo conservation staff and University of Portland faculty and students have teamed up to study Samudra, the zoo's Asian elephant calf, as he develops. Karen Lewis, a conservation researcher at the zoo, designed and initiated the study, inviting biology students to assist with data collection. "Because births are infrequent, there is limited research available on elephant development," Lewis said. "We are doing our best to help expand the elephant population in zoos, but there currently aren't enough elephants to maintain the species under human care for more than a few generations -- making research crucial."

Kathleen Hunt, assistant professor of conservation biology at UP, recruited interested students to help collect and analyze data. Fall and spring term classes received credit for assisting with the study, and three additional students -- Katie Graham, Mary Dinsmore and Kehaunani Malama -- worked as summer research assistants, hoping to gain insight on healthy elephant calf development. "I had no idea how much I would enjoy learning about these animals," Graham said. "Because elephant calves are so rare and fragile, any information that helps measure a young elephant's well-being increases its chances of survival, as well as the survival of future generations."

By tracking Samudra's behavior and interactions during his first year of growth, researchers hope to gather information they can share with other zoos hoping to raise young elephants. Compiling data from elephant calves in multiple zoos can provide animal-care staff with a sense of what to expect during normal calf development. "There is a real possibility of Asian elephants going extinct in the future," Graham added. "The more information we can provide to those who work with elephants, the better they'll be able to care for these amazing animals." Zoos help promote species survival by working to successfully breed and maintain captive populations.

Researchers continuously study elephants in order to better understand their behavior and help preserve dwindling wild populations. This study tracks Samudra's behavior during randomly selected one-hour intervals up to three times a day. Once each minute, the researchers observe and indicate whether a particular behavior occurs. If Samudra performs a behavior at some point during the minute interval, a box is marked, and if he doesn't perform the behavior the box remains empty. The observed behaviors include nursing, eating, drinking, "dusting" (throwing sand or dirt on himself) and interacting with other elephants. "Although this study is ongoing and we have yet to formally analyze the data, we have definitely seen a progression in Sam's behavior over the course of the year," Lewis said. "It has been great to watch him develop into such a healthy and charismatic young elephant."

A second, smaller study that grew out of the initial research focuses on Sam's use of his trunk for exploring and picking up items. Samudra learns to control his trunk with more agility each day, scooping hay into his mouth with a single, smooth motion. He often uses his feet to hold down hay while grabbing large bites with his trunk. "Sam's trunk plays a role in most of his actions throughout the day, and the main study on elephant development wasn't able to provide a detailed picture of that," Lewis noted. "The second study allows us to measure how his trunk use has changed and improved over the year." "He becomes more comfortable with his trunk each day, using it to explore different aspects of his environment," Dinsmore added. "By watching and learning from the females in the herd, Sam now eats orchard grass, fruits and vegetables, and picks up hay, dirt and sawdust to throw on his head and back."

Lewis also noted that Sam has grown more independent over the course of the study. He spends less time very close to his mother, often choosing to wander off and explore on his own or to interact with other elephants in the herd. "Studying Sam's relationship with the other elephants helps explain the progression of his relationship with his mother, Rose-Tu, compared to the other two females in the herd," Dinsmore said. The team hopes to complete the study and compile a summary of Sam's first year by early fall.