Microclimate mosaic and its influence on behaviour of free-living African forest elephants (Loxodonta africana cyclotis)
Kuwong, Michael Viyof
African elephants are known to survive in habitats with ambient temperatures from below 0°C to about 50°C, implying that they may be exposed to great thermal challenges, especially in hot regions of Africa, where they are common. Thermoregulatory behaviour of the African forest elephant in its natural habitat and the microclimates that it utilizes have not previously been investigated. To understand how such an enormous animal behaves in the hot, humid natural forest environment, I investigated microclimates at forest-savannah interfaces (bais) in Lobeke National Park in Cameroon, observed forest elephants’ likely thermoregulatory behaviour and correlated the behaviours with environmental microclimatic variables. Portable weather stations equipped with data loggers were deployed at five study sites to record microclimatic variables for three days per site. I used the fixed point sampling method to observe and record behaviours of forest elephants, during the hot, dry season. Black globe temperature reached an average of about 33ºC during the day in the bais and decreased to a mean of about 20ºC in the night. The day globe temperature often exceeded the body temperature of the elephants, but the vapour pressure of air was lower than that on the elephant’s skin. Therefore, at 100% humidity and estimated skin temperature of 35ºC, I assume elephants of this study lost heat by evaporation, both under the forest canopy and in the open bais. Wind speed in the bais was higher than that under the forest canopy, possibly facilitating convective heat loss from the elephants, particularly at night. Ear-flapping rate of the elephants correlated linearly and positively with dry-bulb and globe temperatures. Shade-seeking and dust-bathing only showed weak positive associations both with dry-bulb globe and temperatures. Between 06:00-24:00, elephants that were observed spent a mean of 40% of their time walking, 55% foraging, 7% shade-seeking, 45% ear-flapping, 4% dust-bathing and 9% of time performing water-related activities. The higher number of elephants in the bais at night as opposed to the numbers in the bais during the day, as revealed by the findings of this study, suggests that the forest elephant may have a more favourable mode of dumping its excess body heat in the open bais than under the forest canopy at night. All the bais and their vicinity that were investigated in this study were heavily trampled with elephant spoors, because many elephants frequently congregated in the area due the presence of nutritious herbaceous plants, mineral salts and variations in microclimates in the bai-savannah interfaces. The differences in microclimates in the bais and their vicinity may play a major role in influencing the forest elephant’s thermoregulatory behaviour. To the best of my knowledge, my study suggests for the first time that the forest elephant may use microclimates at the bai interface for thermoregulatory needs. However, my study is limited because it was executed for a short duration and over the hot dry season, and factors that may affect elephants such as physiology, the availability and quality of forage and predation risk were not included in this investigation. All these factors may have affected the accuracy of my findings. For these reasons the inferences made in this study on elephant microclimate selection would need further investigation before concrete conclusions are drawn. Expensive research cost, human safety, fear of human presence and hence alteration of elephant behaviour and the obscure nature of the equatorial forest have been recurrent issues hindering the investigation of behaviour of free-living African forest elephants. I suggest that it would be worthwhile investigating the forest elephant’s behaviour further by applying GPS/satellite telemetry, real time bio-logging and camera trap techniques, which offer a practical means to carry out an extensive study in the evergreen hot humid equatorial forest of the Congo Basin.