Studying African savannah elephants in their natural habitat has always been a dream of mine. And now, here in Botswana, that dream has become a reality. As I embarked on my master’s journey in 2020, the quest for a research project and supervisor began. With only one professor specializing in African research projects, the choice of supervisor was straightforward. But finding the perfect project was a more challenging task. At that time, there were no ongoing projects, and I was determined not to compromise on my passion for African wildlife.
This determination led me to seek out organizations willing to collaborate with me. After a series of efforts, I connected with Elephants for Africa, and they graciously allowed me to join their research camp. Turning my dream into a tangible research project. My focus revolves around understanding the intricate relationship between age, body size, physical condition, and the foraging behaviour and woody species selection of male African savannah elephants in Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Botswana.
The topic of my Elephant research
My research topic was chosen based on a combination of factors. Including the research interests of Elephants for Africa and my personal preferences. I was particularly interested in conducting a study that involved behavioural data analysis. Elephants for Africa had a long-term plan to investigate the nutritional content of the vegetation in the region to understand why elephants are drawn to this area. My research aligns perfectly with this goal. As it provides essential baseline information, such as identifying the plant species favoured by the elephants. It’s a match made in heaven!
You might be wondering if the foraging behaviour and woody species selection of elephants have been extensively studied already. The answer is both yes and no. While there has been significant research on this topic. Most studies have focused on comparing the behaviour and selection patterns between different male groups and female breeding herds. What sets my research apart is the specific focus on different age groups within male elephants. I aim to broaden the scope of my study by considering their physical condition as well. Additionally, I intend to explore variations in vegetation types and possibly even account for seasonal changes. This comprehensive approach will shed new light on the foraging strategies of male African savannah elephants in the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Botswana.
Why is there a difference between males and females?
These variations in feeding behaviours and species selection among male African savannah elephants can be attributed to their body size. Aligning with the Jarman-Bell principle. According to this principle, body size influences feeding behaviour through three key factors: metabolic rate, gut size, and the duration of food remains in the digestive tract. Body size plays a crucial role in determining energy requirements, primarily due to differences in metabolic rates. As a result, larger individuals, such as adult male elephants, exhibit reduced energy requirements per unit of body mass compared to their smaller female counterparts.
This metabolic advantage allows adult male elephants to consume and digest larger quantities of low-quality forage while still deriving significant nutritional benefits. Consequently, male elephants tend to prioritize quantity over quality when foraging. In contrast, female elephants opt for higher-quality forage, emphasizing the nutritional content of their diet. These distinct feeding strategies reflect the inherent trade-offs between quantity and quality in foraging behaviour among African savannah elephants.
In the initial phase of my elephant research, I am delving into their foraging behaviour, examining it through various variables. The study encompasses an analysis of the plant species they consume. As well as the specific parts of the plant they prefer. This includes investigating whether they consume leaves, whole branches, or even delve into bark and roots. Additionally, I am observing the height at which they choose to feed and the precise location of their feeding activity.
Furthermore, I am scrutinizing their feeding behaviour by considering factors like the duration of their feeding bouts, the number of mouthfuls they take, and the amount of biomass they extract from the trees. This information aids in gauging the intensity of their feeding behaviour. Does it lean more towards selective, meticulous feeding? Or do they opt for more intensive methods to gather a substantial amount of food within a shorter timeframe? These insights will help unravel the intricacies of their foraging strategies.
Woody species selection
The second part of my research delves into woody species selection. Following the collection of data on foraging behaviour, I will conduct vegetation plots along the paths where the elephants have been feeding. These plots come in two forms: feeding plots and control plots. The feeding plot is positioned around a recently browsed tree, and within this plot, all woody species are meticulously identified, and the number of individual plants is counted.
Situated 50 meters away from the feeding plot, the control plot follows the same sampling process as the feeding plot. This entails collecting data on the number of individuals from various species present. Thus, I will acquire data on the number of individuals belonging to different species in the elephants’ diet, in their feeding plot (representing availability), and in the control plot. This data allows me to calculate a selectivity index for each tree species.
The selectivity index serves as a valuable tool for discerning which plant species are preferred by the elephants and which ones they tend to avoid. By combining this selectivity index with data from the feeding and control plots. I can investigate whether the elephants prioritize high-quality forage or opt for quantity. If you have any specific questions about the methodology I will employ for this part of my research, please feel free to ask in the comments section below.
Predictions for the elephant research
As previously mentioned, there is a substantial size difference not only between males and females but also among male elephants. These size differences have a profound impact on their feeding behaviours. Male elephants undergo two significant growth periods and continue growing throughout their lives. Consequently, the elephants that have recently left the herd, typically around 10 to 15 years of age, are considerably smaller than their counterparts aged 36 years or older.
Based on these size differences, I anticipate that younger elephants, as well as those in poorer physical condition, will exhibit more selective foraging behaviours. They will aim to reduce their intake of fibrous vegetation and target areas with high-quality forage. In contrast, older elephants and those in excellent physical condition are likely to engage in more intense foraging behaviours. They will prioritize areas with a high quantity of forage over quality.
It’s important to note that the influence of age and physical condition on woody species selection is not yet documented in academic literature. At this stage, my predictions are based on educated guesses. And my research aims to shed light on these intriguing aspects of elephant behaviour.
Want to support my work?
I spend a lot of time keeping this website filled with educational content and keeping updates about what I do to achieve my dream of working and living in Africa. Do you want to support me? You can buy me a coffee or purchase one of my digital prints. All proceeds will go towards my elephant research and the time spent on this website.