Dhaval Vyas, Ph.D. student in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology shares his African research experience

Dhaval Vyas, Ph.D. student in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology shares his past research from Africa with the Africa Center.   

Sexually dimorphic developmental patterns of chemosensory behaviors in African elephants 

Research location:  West Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

Additional Partners/Collaborators: Dr. Bruce Schulte, Dr. L.E.L (Bets) Rasmussen & Dr. Tom Goodwin

Contact information:  Dhaval.Vyas@colostate.edu


My Master’s research at Georgia Southern University explored how male and female elephants of different ages performed specific chemical sensory behaviors.  An elephant’s trunk, which is a combination of the upper lip and nose, is the elephant’s Swiss Army knife.  The trunk is used for several functions, including gathering food, defending against predators and sensing numerous environmental stimuli.  In addition to smell, elephants have the ability to detect pheromones in the secretions and excretions from other elephants.  These chemical signals contain information about an elephant’s sex, age, identity and reproductive status.  The trunk is used to perform specific behaviors that help an elephant gather and process chemical signals.  Male and female elephants follow different developmental paths once they reach the subadult age class.  Males often leave the family into which they were born and join bachelor males in search of females.  Female elephants remain with their natal groups where they help raise younger elephants or have offspring of their own.  The differences in male and female development suggests that each sex uses chemical signals in a unique manner.  I was interested in detecting whether male and female elephants, in different age classes, showed different patterns of performing the chemical sensory behaviors.  Finding developmental patterns that differed between the sexes would help improve our understanding of how elephants interact with each other and their environment.

Age class and sex did affect the performance of chemical sensory behaviors.  Male and females showed differences beginning in the subadult age class where the repertoire of chemical sensory behaviors differed between the sexes.  Subadult males performed chemical sensory behaviors associated with finding reproductive females, whereas subdault females performed chemical sensory behaviors used to detect threats (e.g., predators, humans).  The results for the calf, juvenile and adult age classes were similar, suggesting that the subadult age class is a critical stage of differentiation between the sexes.  There are significant differences in the life history traits of male and female elephants in different developmental stages.  Elephant conservation and management strategies must acknowledge the importance of chemical signals and their effects on behavior.  I hope that the my study adds to our recognition of the diversity of variables that influence the lives of African elephants.