Study: Pachyderms tend to pack on relatively fewer pounds than people

January  28, 2021

How are those New Year’s weight loss resolutions going so far? For those of us who could use some more motivation to diet, a new study conducted at Indiana University has found that your average elephant is probably in better shape than most humans.

In fact, the research team says, despite their massive size, zoo elephants actually carry less body fat than the average person, reports Study Finds.

The team, led by Daniella Chusyd of Indiana University, wanted to understand why Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) living in zoos had lower birth rates than their peers in the wild. Researchers say it was thought these captive elephants were overweight and this was leading to a fertility crisis among the zoo population. Such a connection is similar to what health experts see happening in overweight people.

“I was interested in discovering whether methods predominantly used in human health research could help us learn more about elephants,” says Chusyd, formerly from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), in a media release. “Obesity is not clearly defined in humans, let alone elephants.”

Until now, study authors say, no one had ever checked how much fat Asian elephants carry in captivity. X

Chusyd, Janine Brown from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and Tim Nagy of UAB measured the amount of water in the elephants’ bodies. They then subtracted that from their body mass to calculate each animal’s level of fat.

It may sound simple, but measuring body water in an elephant is no small task. The best method is by giving each animal a dose of heavy water, however, the team had to be creative in their approach so the elephants wouldn’t spill the liquid.

“We came up with the idea of using bread soaked with heavy water to deliver it to the elephants,” Chusyd explains. The researcher adds that elephants particularly enjoy this treat.

“I quickly became their best friend.”

Zookeepers also collected blood samples prior to the heavy water treatments and up to 20 days after the experiment. Researchers examined elephants from zoos throughout the United States and Canada for this study. With help from scientists at the University of Aberdeen, researchers successfully calculated the water and fat content of these creatures.

According to Study Finds, the results reveal that obesity is not to blame for lower birth rates among Asian elephants in captivity. In fact, the average male elephant carries slightly less fat (8.5%) than females (around 10%). In comparison, researchers find the average human carries between 6% and 31% body fat.

Overall, fat in female elephants ranged from 2% to 25%. Males in the study were larger and carried more total fat. However, does this mean zoo elephants aren’t fit?

To test their fitness, the team attached an elephant-sized fitness tracker to their legs. The gigantic wearable device measured how much walking each animal did each day. The results reveal, even in a zoo, elephants walk about the same distance daily distance as free-ranging elephants—between 0.01 and 1.7 miles every hour. The youngest elephants in the group walked the farthest.

When it comes to the potential fertility crisis at zoos, researchers say they were surprised to find infertile females carried the least fat. The results appear to be more similar to disrupted fertility cycles in underweight women. When looking at elephant insulin levels, fatter elephants tend to have the highest amounts of insulin.

“It is possible that elephants could develop a diabetic-like state,” Chusyd suggests.

In conclusion, the team says it’s still unclear if elephants even experience obesity. When it comes to the ones living in zoos across North America however, staying fit is not an issue.

“They are doing a great job… they know their individual elephants best,” Chusyd says of the zoo keepers.

The study appears in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Research contact: @StudyFinds

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