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Wild elephants track the scents of others in their path

Wild elephants pay close attention to scent trails of dung and urine that have been left behind by other elephants, according to a new study from the University of Exeter and Elephants for Africa.

“When animals move along well-established pathways, sensory cues along the path may provide valuable information concerning other individuals that have used the same route. Yet the extent to which animals use pathways as sources of public social information is poorly understood,” explained the study authors. 

“Here we quantified the responses of wild African savannah elephants, Loxodonta africana, to olfactory information along natural elephant pathways, habitual routes that link predictable critical resources in the environment.”

The researchers found that the African savannah elephants were “highly attentive” as they traveled, sniffing and tracking the trail with their trunks. This was especially true of those traveling alone.

The experts said their findings indicate that scents act as a type of “public information resource” for wild elephants. 

Further research is needed to investigate the potential for artificial elephant trails to be used to steer the animals away from farms and villages, where human-elephant conflict can cause devastation. 

Scent trails could also be created to improve the efficiency of routes connecting elephant populations between protected areas.

“Our findings suggest an important role of an elephant’s sense of smell in long-distance navigation,” said study lead author Connie Allen. “As elephants follow these trails, they deposit their own urine and dung, which reinforces the pathway’s presence for future elephants.”

“We see great potential for these findings to be applied to elephant management and conservation – primarily as a method for manipulating elephant movements.”

Allen noted that the study was conducted in Botswana, where the main threat to elephants is conflict with humans.

“By removing the existing scent paths that lead elephants to close contact with humans in problem areas, and redirecting them, perhaps we could reduce such conflicts happening.”

The study also revealed that urine deposits from adults were more likely to attract attention than that of younger elephants.

“African elephants may therefore be able to discern the age and maturity of individuals they can expect to encounter from remote urine cues on pathways,” said Allen.

The study is published in the journal Animal Behavior.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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