Understanding Asian Elephant Personality and Cognition to Inform Conservation (Sri Lanka)
This project seeks to investigate Asian elephant problem-solving behavior and how it relates to crop-raiding (a form of human-elephant conflict) and personality. Barrett expects to gain knowledge about which individual elephants are more likely to engage in risky crop-raiding behavior by conducting research with both captive and wild elephants.
This study will enhance our understanding about how some elephants are able to adapt to human encroachment by crop-raiding for supplemental food. As bolder individuals may be more likely to engage with novel objects and solve novel problems, we can use individual variation in personality to make predictions about crop-raiding. Thus, we can predict which individuals are at greatest risk for engaging in crop-raiding. Therefore, the project possesses important implications for conservation of an endangered species and requires an interdisciplinary collaboration of comparative psychology and ecology.
For my dissertation, I plan to assess Asian elephant personality in US zoos through behavioral observation, novel object presentation, and keeper survey distribution. I will investigate problem-solving ability by presenting captive elephants with a baited puzzle box. I also plan to ultimately carry out these methods with wild Asian elephants (without keeper surveys).
Sri Lanka (Summer 2015): Although I was able to observe 9 to 11 elephants per day, my observation periods were rather short, which is not ideal for collecting a personality profile for each animal. This was mainly because elephants would quickly move into trees and out of view once I spotted them. Other considerations before future visits include the daily park entrance fee, which would be quite costly, especially over a longer period of time, as well as the presence of tourists and tourist vehicles which may interfere with experimentation (added noise of vehicle, tourists talking during testing, etc.). U.S. Zoos (Summer 2016): I have had several zoos approve my work, and I will begin testing with captive elephants in Summer 2016.
Barrett, Lisa, "Understanding Asian Elephant Personality and Cognition to Inform Conservation (Sri Lanka)" (2015). CGS Student Awards 2015. 2.