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Room to Roam: Using GPS to Determine the Effect of Exhibit Size and Herd Size on Zoo Elephant Movement

By Matthew Holdgate, Deborah A. Duffield, David J. Shepherdson

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Asian and African elephants (Elephas maximus and Loxodonta spp.) are particularly susceptible to welfare concerns in zoological institutions due to their high intelligence, complex social structures, and sheer size. Zoo elephants are also limited by the space available to them, and the resulting lack of exercise may contribute to a host of health issues, including obesity and foot disease. Zoos rely largely on changes to the exhibit size and herd size to promote elephant movement, yet the effect of these factors on movement is unknown. Our study used GPS-equipped anklets to track the movement of 80 elephants at 43 zoos in the U.S. and Canada. For each elephant, GPS coordinates were recorded at 5-second intervals for 5 days, during which time the elephant’s effective exhibit size and herd size were monitored. Data analysis is currently underway, but we will discuss our prediction that exhibit size and herd size will be positively correlated with elephant movement, while eventually showing diminishing returns. We will also consider the perils and potential of using GPS technology in wildlife research, including the challenges we faced working with elephants and in a zoo environment. The results of our study will allow oversight organizations to develop and implement more informed elephant welfare guidelines, and will have great practical value as zoos design larger elephant exhibits and expand their herds.


Katie Carroll

Date August 2013
Publisher Portland State University Library
Conference Title Student Research Symposium 2013
Language English
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal housing
  2. Animal roles
  3. Animal welfare
  4. Elephants
  5. Herds
  6. Mammals
  7. Movement
  8. space
  9. Zoo and captive wild animals
  10. Zoos