Summer Research in San Diego

By Lisa Barrett

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You’ve previously read about my visit to Sri Lanka and my project with zebra finches in grad school at the University of Wyoming. This summer I conducted research with elephants at the San Diego Zoo as part of my Ph.D. dissertation with invaluable help from a UW Biodiversity Institute grant.

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Tembo was one of the easiest elephants to learn because of her distinctive right ear.

Phase one of my research at the zoo involved collecting information about each elephant’s personality. I collected several hours of elephant observations and recorded their every move (also known as a focal follow). I kept track of who was near whom and for how long. This meant I needed to “learn the elephants”—or memorize who is who. I also asked each elephant keeper to score the elephants on their personalities through a survey.

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Filming elephant behavior!

Other awesome critters at the zoo:

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Meerkats

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Giraffe

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Pangolin

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Gerenuk

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Giant panda

For the second phase of my project I sought to measure the elephants’ problem-solving abilities. I presented them with novel foraging tasks to see how quickly they learned how to extract a tasty food reward, such as popcorn. As you might imagine, encouraging an enormous animal to participate in a research test is not an easy task, and I relied heavily on the keeper staff to move elephants around different enclosures so that I could carry out my trials. Nevertheless, if an elephant did not want to come to research, they didn’t, and no one could/would make them!

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Making popcorn…for research!

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An elephant retrieving food from a feeder (right) while another (“freeloader”) benefits (left).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The elephants were target trained to present certain body parts to the keepers so that keepers could perform health checks.

Conducting this research is just the beginning. I will spend this semester extracting behavioral data from videos of the elephants for analysis. After that, I will be visiting two more zoos who have agreed to participate in this project. Although I have a lot further to go on my elephant project, I am looking forward to sharing my results with you someday soon!

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Me and my helpful research assistant.

 

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