Berkeley -- When resources are scarce, who you know and where you're positioned on the social totem pole affects how far you'll go to search for food. At least that's the case with African elephants, according to a study led by ecologists at the University of California, Berkeley, who collaborated with researchers at Save the Elephants, a non-profit research organization based in Kenya, and at the University of Oxford in England.
An analysis of social dominance relationships and roaming patterns of free-ranging elephants in the Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves in northern Kenya found that elephants led by older, more dominant matriarchs tromped significantly fewer miles to seek food than those a few rungs lower on the social ladder.
During the dry season, when water and vegetation were harder to come by, dominant groups traveled an average of 4-5 kilometers per day, about half the distance of subordinate groups that would trek 8-11 kilometers per day.
Additionally, dominant groups in the study were more likely to stick to the preferred central, protected areas of the park, where fewer humans and more water can be found.
"This work shows, for the first time, the role social factors play in the dispersal of elephants in an ecosystem," said lead author George Wittemyer, a post-doctoral researcher at UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources and a National Science Foundation International Research Fellow. "The findings have significant policy implications for how elephant populations are managed."
The elephants in this study occupied an open park, but in many areas of Africa, significant tracts of land are being fenced off to keep the elephants away from agricultural communities where the pachyderms' propensity to raid crops have earned them the label of pests. For example, some 12,000 elephants are enclosed in a 7,000 square kilometer area of South Africa's Kruger National Park.
The fencing pr
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University of California - Berkeley