Scent Trails of Dung and Urine Could Boost Elephant Conservation

Elephant Investigating Dung With His Trunk

An elephant investigating elephant dung with his trunk at the Boteti River. Credit: Connie Allen

Traveling elephants pay close attention to scent trails of dung and urine left by other elephants, new research shows.

Scientists monitored well-used pathways and found that wild African savannah elephants — especially those traveling alone — were “highly attentive,” sniffing and tracking the trail with their trunks.

This suggests these scents act as a “public information resource,” according to researchers from the University of Exeter and Elephants for Africa.

More research is now needed to find out whether humans can create artificial elephant trails to divert elephants away from farms and villages, where conflict with humans can cause devastation to communities.

Alternatively, scent trails could be placed to improve the efficiency of routes connecting elephant populations between protected areas.

Elephant Pathway

An elephant pathway. Credit: Connie Allen

“Our findings suggest an important role of an elephant’s sense of smell in long-distance navigation,” said lead author Connie Allen, of Exeter’s Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour.

“As elephants follow these trails, they deposit their own urine and dung, which reinforces the pathway’s presence for future elephants.

“We see great potential for these findings to be applied to elephant management and conservation — primarily as a method for manipulating elephant movements.

“We carried out this study in Botswana, where the main threat to elephants is conflict with humans. By removing the existing scent paths that lead elephants to close contact with humans in problem areas, and redirecting them, perhaps we could reduce such conflicts happening.”

Male Elephants

Male elephants in the Makgadikgadi. Credit: Connie Allen

The proposed technique could also aid efforts in Botswana to reconnect elephants with populations across southern Africa.

The study, which examined a predominantly male population, also found that urine deposits from adult elephants were more likely to attract attention than that of younger (subadult) males.

“African elephants may therefore be able to discern the age and maturity of individuals they can expect to encounter from remote urine cues on pathways,” Allen explained.

Reference: “Field evidence supporting monitoring of chemical information on pathways by male African elephants” by Connie R.B. Allen, Lauren J.N. Brent, Thatayaone Motsentwa and Darren P. Croft, 26 May 2021, Animal Behaviour.
DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2021.04.004

The study received funding from the Leverhulme Trust.

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