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Are land-use decisions of African elephants based on environmental geochemistry?

This project will explore the role of environmental geochemistry in land use decisions by wild African elephants. This is a unique, interdisciplinary project involving environmental geochemistry, plant science, and animal health to address research questions which have important and practical implications for wildlife health and conservation.

In the first phase of the project, mineral levels in a range of biological samples (serum, hair, nails) from elephants at five UK zoos will be measured to validate their use as possible biomarkers of mineral status in wild elephants. The mineral content of food, soil and water consumed by these elephants will be determined, with training in advanced inductively coupled mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) and stable isotope techniques.

The second phase of this project will apply these validated methods to a study of wild African elephants. The multi-element capability of ICP-MS for measuring environmental/biomonitoring samples enables an estimation of mineral balance and potential metal uptake. The working hypothesis is that the elephants in this study group are deficient in phosphorus, owing to a deficiency in the (soil and) forage in a South African National Park. This drives the elephants to supplement their phosphorus from the water, soil and forage on land surrounding a phosphate mine in close proximity to the National Park. Elephant incursion into nearby human settlements has resulted in human-elephant conflict, causing risk of injury and lost income.

This project may identify key locations in the elephants’ home range where mineral-supplemented forage, or mineral licks, may be placed to reduce the drive to seek additional sources of phosphorus; this could reduce human-elephant conflict.

This project provides opportunities for varied work: fieldwork in UK Zoos and South Africa for environmental/biomonitoring analyses of wild elephants, specialist laboratory and data interpretation training at BGS and University of Nottingham and translation into advice to stakeholders.

2:1 or equivalent in subjects such as Chemistry, Environmental Sciences, Geography, Natural Sciences or Veterinary Sciences

For further information contact Dr Michael Watts (British Geological Survey), Dr Lisa Yon (University of Nottingham, School of Veterinary Medicine & Science), or Professor Martin Broadley (University of Nottingham, Dept. Plant Nutrition)