Rhodes Team Assesses Behavioral Changes of Elephants at Memphis Zoo

an image of an elephant in front of a white background

Captive African elephants can experience arthritis and foot conditions. In November of 2011, the Memphis Zoo replaced a concrete floor with soft-composite resilient flooring where three of its African elephants were housed to improve the foot and joint health of the animals. A team of researchers including Rhodes Biology Professor Sarah Boyle and four Rhodes alumni—Brittany Pope ’13, Maggie Blake ’14,  Stephen Leavelle ’14, and Jennifer Marshall ’14—have published an article in PLoS ONE along with several of the zoo’s scientists and elephant keepers. The article examines the behavioral and physiological changes of the elephants after the flooring was replaced.

In addition to the flooring changes, new stall shift doors replaced the old ones, allowing for more open visual and tactile communication among the animals.

Research results showed that the elephants varied in behavioral and physiological measures before, during, and after the flooring renovations, and that the new flooring had a positive impact on them.

“This project illustrates the incredible partnership that Rhodes has with the Memphis Zoo, as the article was a collaborative effort among the Memphis Zoo’s scientists, elephant keepers, and Rhodes,” says Boyle. “Fourteen Rhodes students contributed to data collection overall, and the four student coauthors dedicated an incredible number of hours to collecting and analyzing data. Our research findings will hopefully have positive impacts on other institutions that are considering replacing concrete flooring with a more shock-absorbent material. A team of research students continue to monitor the elephants’ behaviors year-round. I am grateful for the unique research opportunities that the Memphis Zoo provides to our students.”