Physical and behavioral indicators associated with hormonal changes during musth in zoo-housed and free-ranging Asian elephants (Elephas maximus)

Elsevier, Theriogenology Wild, Volume 1, 2022, 100011
Chase A. LaDue Kathleen E. Hunt M.G. Sachintha M. Samaraweera Rajnish P.G. Vandercone Wendy K. Kiso Elizabeth W. Freeman

In-situ and ex-situ Asian elephant populations are threatened with extinction, and male elephants pose unique challenges to long-term sustainability. The heightened sexual state of “musth” is accompanied by a suite of physical, behavioral and physiological changes. Furthermore, musth is unique to male elephants and requires special consideration when developing short- and long-term management strategies for elephants in the wild and in human care. The purpose of this study was to identify associations between fecal hormone metabolites [fecal androgen metabolites, FAM; fecal glucocorticoid metabolites, FGM; and fecal triiodothyronine (T3) metabolites, FT3] and visible musth indicators [temporal gland secretions (TGS) and urine dribbling (UD)], and behavioral changes around musth. From fecal samples collected non-invasively from wild elephants in Wasgamuwa National Park, Sri Lanka, and zoo-housed elephants in the United States, we hypothesized that (1) TGS and/or UD would be associated with changes in FAM, FGM, and/or FT3 concentrations; (2) variation in fecal hormone metabolites would be associated with increased locomotion and chemosensory behavior, and decreased foraging; and (3) relationships we identified would be similar between wild and zoo-housed elephants. We found that FAM concentrations changed significantly with TGS and UD activity in both wild and zoo elephants. Further while FGM concentrations were higher with increased TGS and UD in zoo elephants, the opposite pattern occurred in wild elephants. We did not identify substantial change in FT3 concentrations with TGS/UD activity. Behavioral changes in zoo elephants were significantly associated with FAM concentration as predicted, but these relationships were more difficult to identify in wild elephants due to lower sample availability. Further, FGM concentration was directly related to time spent locomoting in zoo elephants, but no other apparent association existed between FGM concentration with other behaviors in zoo elephants, or in any behaviors in wild elephants. Likewise, we did not report associations between FT3 and any behaviors we measured. This study contributes to our understanding of the complex response patterns that male Asian elephants exhibit around musth, and it provides another example of complementary in-situ–ex-situ research that can be directly applied to improve the well-being of elephants and other wildlife.