Like humans, elephants have individual dietary needs and, like humans, some of them are just picky! Elephants support their development and changing activities by changing what they eat.
As elephants develop, their diet changes too. Young elephants need lots of energy-rich foods like sugarcane, which support their growth up to the age of around 30. Protein-rich foods like leguminous plants are also important for muscle growth. Minerals like calcium and phosphorus are also vital nutrients for growing, as they help form bones and teeth. Calcium stimulates body tissues to grow and secrete developmental hormones. Phosphorus triggers the digestive process, so that elephants can break down sugars they eat and release energy for growth. Phosphorus also forms part of an animal’s genetic code, DNA, which provides instructions the body needs to grow and develop. It is therefore especially important that young elephants eat lots of calcium-rich foods like bark and leguminous plants, as well as plants high in phosphorus.
Pregnant or nursing elephants need extra energy and protein-rich foods for the bodily changes they undergo to support their growing offspring. As with young elephants, they need elevated levels of phosphorus to ensure that the extra sugars they eat are digested. Calcium is also vital to support bodily growth and hormone secretion during a long pregnancy of 22 months. Calcium also triggers the muscle contractions needed for a successful labour. Finally, calcium and phosphates provide key nutrients in the milk they produce, supporting healthy growth of their calves. Calcium, phosphorus and many other nutrients can be topped up with dietary supplements.
Food is a priority for male elephants when they enter a period called ‘musth’. This is when they are ready to breed, as testosterone in the blood increases by up to 40 times its normal level! In order to produce such high levels of this hormone, these elephants need extra protein, which can be provided in leguminous plants. They also need lots of energy-rich foods like sugarcane in order to fuel their activity in pursuing a mate.
Older elephants, who are on their sixth and last set of teeth, need a softer diet than most. Starvation is sadly one of the most common natural causes of death in wild elephants; as their teeth are lost, so is their ability to eat. However, good chaangs (carers) will often mash up their food for them and limit their consumption of tough, woody materials like sugarcane. Moreover, woody plants can be beneficial in an elephant’s diet; they help clean and work out old teeth, making room for new sets. Kwan chaangs should check their elephants’ teeth daily and monitor their natural wear and health. Finally, all elephants have personal preferences, just like humans. Some are very fussy – especially teenagers – and throw away perfectly good bananas or pineapples for being too green or leafy!
What future developments could improve captive elephant nutrition?
By analysing biochemical compositions, specific plant species could be identified with high concentrations of key nutrients.
By analysing regular blood samples from elephants in our laboratory, we will also be able to optimise diets for their individual needs.
Find out more:
International Plant Nutrition Institute. (1999). Phosphorus in Animal Nutrition. Better Crops With Plant Food. 83 (1), p32-33.
Phang Nga Elephant Park. (2015-2019). Appearance and Intelligence. Available: https://phangngaelephantpark.com/appearance-and-intelligence/. Last accessed 09.11.19.
Association of Zoos & Aquariums (2012). AZA Standards for Elephant Management and Care. 2nd ed. USA: Association of Zoos & Aquariums. p28.
Koirala, R.K et al. (2019). The Effects of Age, Sex and Season on the Macronutrient Composition of the Diet of the Domestic Asian Elephant. Journal of Applied Animal Research. 47 (1), 5-16.
van Baarlen, I; Gerritsen, M (2012). Elephant Nutrition in Dutch Zoos. The Netherlands: University of Applied Sciences.