From Primates to Elephants: Dr. Braccini Slade researches Laterality and Feed Ecology

Dr. Stephanie Braccini Slade is the Vice President of Living Collections at Birmingham Zoo in Alabama. She has been working with the RHCRU herd since 2016, performing laterality and feed ecology studies. Her tusk and trunk laterality study examines the directional preferences in elephants, similar to handedness in humans. Elephants have tusk preferences for digging, lifting, and torque, which can be determined by looking at the length of each tusk (the shorter tusk is the dominant one). Dr. Braccini Slade’s experiment was designed to draw out the strongest lateral preference using an enclosed box. Each animal was given the equal chance to extract food from the center of the box, a task that became gradually more difficult, to engage more trunk precision and fine motor skills. Preliminary analysis of the data indicates that each elephant does express a dominant side. In October, Dr. Braccini Slade completed the final stage of her feed ecology and adapted feeding strategies study. Chova, our 20-year-old male bull, inspired this research through his unique feeding strategy. Because of an injury, Chova is missing the tip of his trunk, preventing him from stripping leaves by wrapping the fingers of the trunk around a branch and moving outward. Instead, he wraps the mid-section of his trunk around the branch to strip off leaves, which results in significantly lower feeding success. Dr. Braccini-Slade’s team observed the elephants feeding in the bush each season over the last year and recorded their behaviors. This film will be analyzed to discover the feeding success rates for all feeding strategies used, the social feeding behaviors compared to solitary behaviors, and how various strategies have a more destructive impact on the natural landscape.

Dr. Braccini Slade’s interest in elephants began the first time she saw a wild elephant during a trip to Uganda in 2007, when she was “instantly captivated by its size, majesty, and the complex social interactions of the herd.” However, her interest in their behavior sparks from her passion for great apes. In 2015, Dr. Braccini Slade first started her work with African elephants and realized how primate like they were, from their cognitive skills and memory, to their social structure, including play behavior and the formation of bachelor groups. “Every time I watch elephants I walk away with more questions about their cognition, behavior, and social interactions.”  Her curiosity led to her recently completed laterality experiment with the RHCRU elephants. “For chimpanzees, and other primate species, we test their hand preferences using the “tube task,” a simple method of putting peanut butter or another food item in the middle of a long tube. They use one hand to hold the tube and the other hand to extract the food item. The hand they use to extract the peanut butter is then deemed the dominant hand.” Her elephant experiment used this concept to demonstrate the similarities between elephants and primates. The expression of laterality has a deeper impact, however. Dr. Braccini-Slade sees this trait as a way to boost conservation efforts by strengthening the bond humans feel towards animals. “Over my 17 years of studying mammal behavioral laterality (i.e. handedness) it’s always been a topic that makes people see animals in a different light, one that highlights how they are “just like us”. While there are so many approaches to conversation one that seems the best utilized and successful in non-range countries is getting the public to understand and appreciate wildlife, and what better way than to understand and relate to the individuals and species as a whole.” Dr. Braccini Slade hopes that her feeding ecology study will also benefit conservation, although it has more of an applied implication. “Chova is a model for how natural adaptations to injuries can occur successfully, which can better provide a model for how to train younger elephants with similar injuries be efficient and effective in their adapted feeding strategies” and the broader analysis can be used to maintain elephant populations with less destruction.

Working with the RHCRU elephants is quite a different experience from working with the elephants at the Birmingham Zoo. “At the Birmingham Zoo we only work elephants in a protected contact setting. This means that humans and animals never share space; rather we are always separated by a physical barrier (mesh, bollards, fences, etc.).” RHCRU’s elephants, on the other hand, interact with the public and researchers through free contact, which allows for different training and observational opportunities. Additionally, the RHCRU elephants are free feeding, and therefore depend less on humans than the zoo animals (which made them ideal for her feed ecology study). “I like to think that the elephants back in Alabama act as ambassadors for their more wild counterparts, aiding us in teaching guests about elephant behavior, conservation, and biology. Through their interaction and role in zoos we are able to spark passion, interest, and action to protect these vulnerable and dynamic animals.” Dr. Braccini-Slade also mentions that field work, even in a small town with power and internet, presents a different environment than the zoo and can cause challenges. “I’ve had equipment break, power or connection cables disappear, and all sorts of strange equipment malfunctions. Field research also requires flexibility to methodology, timing, and everything that you thought you were going to do.” Fortunately, the RHCRU elephants were fairly cooperative, and the only hiccups Dr. Braccini Slade faced revolved around the elephants wanting to play instead of eat while out in the bush, or flipping the box to obtain their food reward instead of performing the task as intended. Having to be flexible in her data collection schedule, however, allowed Dr. Braccini-Slade to observe the scenery and wildlife of Bela Bela, as well as the impact of the animals on tourists. “Listening to people during their elephant interactions is heartwarming and entertaining; from the laugher of children to adults learning something new.”  It also let her experience the beauty of the bond of our herd, best demonstrated when they are out in the bush demonstrating their natural behavior. “My most memorable moments have been watching Chova interact with his “kids” Zambezi and Bela. Be it while feeding in the bush or playing in the water, he is always patient and playful. A close second was a morning I was following the herd and filming their feeding behaviors when Nuanedi and Chishuru had this massive play session. They were vocalizing and running and pushing each other, so much so that Chishuru sat down at one point and Nuanedi was pushing him in the bum with her tusks. It was so cute to watch these big animals play just like my kids.” While Dr. Braccini-Slade may be a primate girl at heart, her passion for elephants and dedication to their conservation is evident in her hard work with the RHCRU herd and her devotion to deepening our understanding of these magnificent animals while spreading her fondness of the species to others. 

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