The behavioral effects of exhibit size versus complexity in African elephants: A potential solution for smaller spaces

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Nancy L. Scott, Chase A. LaDue
Zoo Biology
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Population-level analyses suggest that habitat complexity, but not necessarily space availability, has important welfare outcomes for elephants in human care. At the Dallas Zoo, the opening of a new exhibit complex allowed us to measure the behavior of two female African elephants across three treatments to evaluate the independent effects of complexity and space. Preoccupancy observations were conducted in the elephants’ older exhibit, which consisted of a smaller, more simple yard (630 m2). Subsequent postoccupancy observations measured behavior in two different spaces in the new exhibit: a larger, complex yard (15,000 m2), and a smaller, but complex yard (1,520 m2). The elephants’ overall activity levels were greater in complex habitats, regardless of their size. Similar effects of habitat complexity oversize were observed with greater rates of foraging and lower rates of being stationary. Furthermore, elephants were out of view of visitors significantly more in the small, simple yard compared to either of the more complex habitats. However, exhibit size affected the incidence of stereotypic behavior (with lower rates of stereotypy in the larger exhibit compared to the smaller yards) and investigatory behavior (elephants investigated their environments more with increasing size and complexity). Behavioral diversity also increased with exhibit size and complexity. These results indicate that space availability alone is not sufficient to enhance the behavioral welfare of zoo elephants. Therefore, facilities with limited space can still encourage species-appropriate behaviors and improved welfare for the elephants in their care by converting a small, simple area into a more complex habitat.


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