Exploring the early social affiliations and behaviour of a captive Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) calf
Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) are an endangered species with complex social behaviour. However, no previous studies have mapped the development of calves before the age of six months. This study seeks to fill this gap in knowledge through characterisation of the earliest stages of development in the behavioural repertoire and social associations of a male elephant calf at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, NY. The herd was composed of four adult females (mother, maternal aunt, grandmother, and one unrelated female) and one male calf born on 12 May 2015. Data were collected between May – September 2015 while the elephants were on public display in a 3.5 acre outdoor enclosure. Focal scan sampling of the calf’s behaviour, instantaneous sampling of the females’ behaviour, and herd association indices were collected at two-minute intervals. A total of 554 scan samples of the calf’s behaviour were collected across the first 17 weeks of development. The calf exhibited increasing levels of dexterity and behavioural complexity with time, particularly with fine motor skills associated with trunk use. The calf spent almost all of his time in close proximity to other herd members (98% of total observed time) and this remained consistent over the entire observational period. His most frequent association was with his mother (in close proximity in 70% of observations) and his lowest association was with his aunt (33%). The adults spent an average of 70% of observed time associating with any other elephant in the herd. There were no significant differences in time the other elephants spent with related and non-related individuals within this zoo herd. Due to the importance of social affiliations and early bonding between herd members, we suggest that further studies on the early development of elephant calves could provide useful information on herd bonding, management, and husbandry.
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