Elephant Hair Keeps "Diary" of Diet, Migration

Nicholas Bakalar
for National Geographic News
January 4, 2006

Researchers say they have traced the diets and migration patterns of elephants in Kenya by examining the hair at the tips of their tails.

The method may help alleviate conflicts between humans and crop-raiding elephants, the scientists note.

Researchers studied elephants in the Samburu National Reserve from 2000 to 2002, fitting seven elephants with global positioning system (GPS) radio collars and collecting hair from the pachyderms' tails at various intervals.

The seven animals migrate from the semiarid region in and near the Samburu Reserve to the Imenti Forest on the flanks of Mount Kenya, 37 miles (60 kilometers) away.

The reserve rises about 3,000 feet (900 meters) above sea level. Its vegetation is largely acacia trees and scrub bush. In the Imenti Forest, found at an altitude of about 6,500 feet (2,000 meters), evergreen and deciduous trees dominate the landscape.

Researchers spotted six of the seven elephants in or near the Samburu National Reserve during the study's observation period from early 2001 to July 2002. GPS data corroborated their presence there.

"Streaking" Bull

But one elephant, an old bull designated B1013, had a very different pattern from February 2002 to July 2002.

It made three long trips from the arid lowlands to the upland forest near Mount Kenya and back, spending the rainy season in the lowlands and the dry season in the forest near the mountain.

This was not a gradual migration. The bull moved from one location to the other—a distance of 25 miles (40 kilometers) as the crow flies—in less than 15 hours, a behavior called "streaking."

Analysis of B1013's hair showed that the bull ate a different diet depending on his location. But the data also revealed another essential fact: B1013 got a significant part of its diet by raiding crops cultivated in subsistence farms near the Imenti Forest.

The hair analysis gives more information than GPS data alone, according to Thure E. Cerling, a professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah and lead study author. "This is additional information," he said, "not meant to replace older methods, say GPS or direct observation, used to study elephants."

Continued on Next Page >>


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