Do elephants bite their nails?

A study into a new measure of welfare for elephants in captivity. By Lisa Olivier

We aren’t talking about elephants literally biting their nails, but just as we humans do such things when we are nervous, like biting our nails, or touching our hair or face – is there an equivalent in the elephant world? If there was, would it help us understand them more? What they may be worried about in their environment? What makes them nervous, even who makes them nervous?

The African Elephant Research Unit (AERU) has been aiming to answer such questions. Since 2011 we have been collecting extensive data on this very topic, aiming to confirm the presence of ‘nervous’ behaviours in elephants and use them to improve the welfare of elephants in captivity. There are many subtle elephant behaviours that researchers have noticed for many years, but have not fully understood. Behaviours such as trunk twisting, foot-swinging, touching parts of their face or mouth with their trunks, even pretending to feed, are seen as displacement behaviours.

Displacement behaviours occur when there is a conflict between two actions that an individual is equally motivated to perform, but they cannot be expressed together – for example wanting to give that career making presentation but at the same time wanting to run for the hills! This creates motivational energy inside us that is ‘displaced’ somewhere else, such as quickly tapping your pen on the table. I think if any of us saw this behaviour in our fellow humans, without even giving it too much thought, we would label it ‘nerves’.


An encounter between two males at the Addo Elephant National Park

There is a group of displacement behaviours where the energy is still displaced but it is instead turned inwards on oneself, these are known as self-directed behaviours (SDBs). Looking at the previous photo we can see two males in the foreground in a ‘stand-off’, the male on the right is experiencing two conflicting emotions – wanting to engage in sparring but also wanting to back off and move away (the opponent may be dominant to him). So a different behaviour, one that is totally unrelated to the situation, is performed – touching his own face.


Another is from two males that have featured in much of AERU’s research, Namib (left) and Harry (right), pictured to the right. Harry is dominant to Namib, but they are closely matched in age and size so there is often tension between them and they are frequent sparring partners. Namib often displays displacement behaviours when in close proximity to Harry, commonly in the form of self-directed behaviours. This frequently occurs when food is around and in this example Namib is motivated to eat but also wary about being too close to Harry (presumably through fear of an aggressive response), so his two conflicting motivations (reach for the food vs. stay away from a dominant) results in the functionless behaviour – touching his own ear.
These examples have shown us what makes elephants nervous in a social context (with other elephants) but for a welfare application we are interested in other triggers that could make elephants ‘nervous’. There are many things out of the elephants control in captive and semi captive environments. Differing husbandry procedures, the actions of tourists, handlers, vehicles that may be around, even other animals! Any measurable signs that reveal the elephant’s emotions could be very valuable to those who look after them.

You may think an animal touching its face or body is pretty normal – but it’s about looking at the context that it is occurring in, whether the behaviour is appropriate in that situation. They are not ‘abnormal’ behaviours (behaviours that do not occur in wild populations) which is why they should not be confused with ‘stereotypical behaviours’. Stereotypies are abnormal repetitive behaviours such as swaying or pacing, which are generally agreed to be a manifestation of long term stress. They are used in many species to assess ‘overall’ welfare, but they give little information of the exact cause of the stress, and are still open to debate in the understanding of them. Displacement behaviours however, have the potential to be much more useful because they are a short term ‘instant’ reaction to a potential stressor, enabling the elephant handler to take note of what is occurring in their environment at that specific time that may be making them nervous.

Over the past few years AERU has noticed these types of behaviours occurring in different situations and have been actively recording the circumstances around them, building up a picture of what triggers these responses. Understanding stress is essential to any management tool. However, most indicators of welfare rely on expensive, slow methods such as testing dung for ‘stress’ hormones. Our research aims to prove that these behaviours can be used as a way of identifying and quantifying stress in a non-invasive and scientific manner.

Many organisations rely on tourism to fund the care of elephants, and so we feel that it is important that we do everything in our power to optimise elephant welfare during such tourism activities. We believe that using displacement behaviours as a measure of welfare could be the key to this. Our goal is to create a ‘welfare index’ that will enable stressors to be recognised and dealt with before becoming a welfare concern. However, before we can jump ahead and actually use this as a meaningful welfare index, we have had to take some important and necessary steps. Our first step has been proving that these behaviours measure what we think they measure before it can even be considered a reliable indicator of welfare. This process is called validation.

Studies on primates have advanced well in this area, with displacement behaviours being used as a recognised measure of welfare, in various primate species, for the past fifteen years.


Recognised displacement behaviours in the Hamadryas baboon.

Primatologists gained validation for the use of these behaviours to measure welfare by considering both behavioural and physiological measures (such as ‘stress’ hormones in dung). They found that when the frequency of displacement behaviours rose, so did the levels of stress hormones. After a number of repetitions of these findings they were able to support their hypothesis that displacement behaviours are a reliable indicator of anxiety, and were therefore able to use these behaviours to record levels of anxiety.

Therefore to support this hypothesis in elephants, we need to demonstrate that the exhibition of displacement behaviours is consistently accompanied by physiological changes. This is precisely what the team at AERU has been doing for the past few years with elephants at Knysna Elephant Park and a number of other participating facilities in South Africa. Not only have we been collecting extensive behavioural data, but we have also been collecting dung and even saliva to use in the important validation process.


An AERU team member collecting a dung sample, and an elephant handler collecting saliva at Indalu Game Reserve.

AERU is conducting research into many areas that have the potential to be stressful for an elephant, and measuring how they affect displacement behaviours. The findings of this study will enable managers to better understand the consequences of their choice in husbandry procedures, tourism, veterinary procedures and more, by using these subtle behaviours as a measuring tool to gauge their elephant’s welfare. We are currently compiling our extensive data and eagerly writing reports for publication. Our goal is that it becomes a worldwide recognised ‘welfare index’ for elephants.

While you may not see an elephant bite its nails any time soon, if you look closely you may just start to notice how elephants are telling us how they feel in their own way… we humans just need to pay attention.

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