Monday, 16 May 2016

Are land-use decisions by African elephants influenced by environmental geochemistry?...by Michael Watts, Lisa Yon and Stephen Cunningham

Background

This is a unique, interdisciplinary project involving environmental geochemistry, plant science, and animal health between a range of partners, including BGS and the University of Nottingham (UoN) to address research questions which have important and practical implications for wildlife health and conservation. In the first phase of the project, mineral levels in a range of biological samples (serum, hair, nails) from elephants at five UK zoos will be measured to validate their use as possible biomarkers of mineral status in wild elephants. The mineral content of food, soil and water consumed by these elephants will be determined.

The second phase of this project will apply these validated methods to a study of wild African elephants. The multi–element capability of ICP–MS for measuring environmental/biomonitoring samples enables an estimation of mineral balance and potential metal uptake. The working hypothesis is that the elephants in this study group are deficient in phosphorus, owing to a deficiency in the (soil and) forage in a South African National Park. This drives the elephants to supplement their phosphorus from the water, soil and forage on land surrounding a phosphate mine in close proximity to the National Park. Elephant incursion into nearby human settlements has resulted in human–elephant conflict, causing risk of injury and lost income. This project may identify key locations in the elephants’ home range where mineral–supplemented forage, or mineral licks, may be placed to reduce the drive to seek additional sources of phosphorus; this could reduce human–elephant conflict. This project provides opportunities for varied work: fieldwork in UK Zoos and South Africa for environmental/biomonitoring analyses of wild elephants, specialist laboratory and data interpretation training at BGS and UoN and translation into advice to relevant stakeholders.


Funding

This work will be focussed on a PhD project from the NERC Envision Doctoral Training Programme, with additional support from the Hermes Trust and Royal Society International Exchange scheme. The project is based on a Centre for Environmental Geochemistry collaboration between the Inorganic Geochemistry (Dr Michael Watts) and Stable Isotopes teams (Professor Melanie Leng) at BGS and Schools of Veterinary (Dr Lisa Yon) and Biosciences (Professor Martin Broadley) at the University of Nottingham. The collaboration is further strengthened by partners in five UK zoos and with partners in South Africa who have been studying elephant populations there for the past two decades, tracking elephant movements using GPS and GMS to better understand their habitat use.

Sample collection 

Recently, in April, the first sample collection was undertaken at Knowsley Safari Park, whose keepers were extremely interested in the possibilities of the project.  The keepers enthusiastically shared their immense knowledge on the measures they undertake to ensure the welfare of their elephants, the individual elephant dietary intakes and idiosyncrasies of each elephant.  We initially started with an evaluation of food and water intake through sample collections; these samples will be measured for ‘essential’ mineral content (e.g. zinc, iron) to determine dietary intakes and possible seasonal changes in forage and hay over the next 12 months.  These data will be related to mineral measurements in the elephants’ toenails, plasma, tail hair and faeces to validate methodologies for use and comparison with wild elephants.

Images from L-R: Elephant toe nail trimmings; tail hair clipping; Knowsley elephant team (Front row L-R (green shirts):
 Stephen Cunningham, Alex Spooner, Andy Doyle, Libby Ward. Back row L-R: Aurelie Devez, Michael Watts,
Daniel Middleton, Lisa Yon)
We would like to thank Stephen Cunningham and his team at Knowsley Safari Park for their enthusiasm and collaboration, particularly as part of the launch of the project and helping us to improve our planned methodology for sample collection and interpretation of data as the project proceeds.

For further information:
mwatts@bgs.ac.uk and lisa.yon@nottingham.ac.uk

More information will follow at:
http://www.environmentalgeochemistry.org/research/BiochemicalCycling.html 
https://www.knowsleysafariexperience.co.uk/ 
@KnowsleySafari, facebook.com/knowsleysafari 

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