Understanding the relative roles of ecological factors and individual relationships in shaping animal societies has long been a central objective of mammalian behavioural research and is the basis of a lot of research in our lab. Our present understanding of mammalian social organization and behaviour comes largely from the study of primates. Elephants are a superb non-primate mammal for investigating the role of ecological factors and individual relationships on behaviour as they are socially advanced, inhabitat various habitats, and offer an opportunity for kin- and non-kin-based interactions.
We have been carrying out long-term research on Asian elephant socioecology in Nagarahole and Bandipur National Parks, southern India. Long-term, individual-based datasets are particularly important in behavioural ecology, especially for long-lived species because changing environmental or ecological conditions may confound patterns observed over short periods and preclude meaningful interpretation about the species’ ecology or behaviour. The Kabini Elephant Project began in 2009 and we have identified hundreds of individual elephants. Using multi-dimensional data - locations, associations, feeding, dominance and other behaviours, and genetic relatedness (through dung-extracted DNA) - collected from identified individuals, we are obtaining insights into the social structure and dominance relationships of female and male Asian elephants. We also collect data on food resources and use these along with behavioural data to test predictions from socioecological theory. We thus try to understand how patterns of association, social behaviour, and movement of females and males are influenced by genetic relatedness or other relationships between individuals/social units and by ecological factors, such as resource availability.
An elephant group at Kabini.
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