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Social Interactions in Zoo-Housed Elephants: Factors Affecting Social Relationships

By Ellen Williams, Anne Carter, Carol Hall, Samantha Bremner-Harrison

Category Journal Articles

Elephants have complex social systems that are predominantly driven by ecological factors in situ. Within zoos, elephants are held in relatively static social groups and the factors observed driving social relationships in the wild are largely absent. Little research has investigated the effect of social group factors in zoos on elephant social interactions. The aim of this research was to establish whether there is a relationship between social group factors and social behaviour, in order to identify factors that make elephant herds more or less likely to be compatible. Results will facilitate recommendations for optimum social groupings for zoo elephants. Behavioural data quantifying social interactions were collected between January 2016 and February 2017 at seven UK and Irish zoos and safari parks from 10 African and 22 Asian elephants. Social interactions were split into four categories: positive physical, positive non-physical, negative physical and negative non-physical. Social interactions were related to age (positive physical higher and negative non-physical lower in calves than adults), personality (elephants with higher sociability scores engaged in more positive interactions and less negative interactions), presence of calves in the herd (herds with calves had more positive non-physical), relatedness to other elephants in the herd (positive non-physical were higher when relatives were in the group and negative non-physical were higher between unrelated elephants) and species (Asian elephants engaged in more positive non-physical than African elephants). A greater understanding of factors that may contribute to the success of zoo-elephant social groups is important for individual and herd welfare as it will enable evidence-based decisions which have minimal impact on social structures to be executed. This knowledge will enable proactive management approaches to be undertaken and will thus be paramount in ensuring optimal welfare for elephant herds moving forwards.


Marcy Wilhelm-South

Purdue University

Date 2019
Publication Title Animals
Volume 93
Issue 10
Pages 19
Publisher MDPI
DOI 10.3390/ani9100747
Language English
Additional Language English
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal roles
  2. Animal welfare
  3. Elephants
  4. open access
  5. Social behavior
  6. social interactions
  7. Zoo and captive wild animals
  1. open access