Honors Theses and Capstones

Date of Award

Spring 2017

Project Type

Senior Honors Thesis

College or School



Molecular, Cellular and Biomedical Sciences

Program or Major

Biomedical Science: Medical & Veterinary Science

Degree Name

Bachelor of Science

First Advisor

Vanessa Grunkemeyer

Second Advisor

Debbie Young

Third Advisor

Clare Padfield


Elephants typically have very strong social bonds, and social interactions can include affiliative, agonistic, or ambiguous behaviors. The social interactions and dominance hierarchy between individuals of a herd depend upon many factors, including maternal lineage, age, and sex. This study was designed to determine how social behaviors among a herd of captive African elephants varied throughout the day and to establish if the frequency of social interactions and age class were correlated. The study also aimed to determine if handler perceptions of elephant personality were an accurate predictor of the type and frequency of social behaviors observed, in addition to the factors stated above. The research was performed at the African Elephant Research Unit at Knysna Elephant Park (KEP) in South Africa. The herd included 7 elephants in 3 age groups: juvenile (0-10 years), young adult (11-20 years), and adult (20+ years). Continuous, all-occurrence sampling of pre-determined affiliative, agonistic, and ambiguous social behaviors was performed for a total of 90.4 hours within a seven-week period. Results indicated that there was a statistically higher rate of affiliative, agonistic, and total social behaviors initiated during mid-morning than during mid-afternoon, but no statistical difference in ambiguous social behaviors initiated throughout the day. Additionally, elephant handlers were individually surveyed regarding perceptions of each elephant’s personality traits, including qualities of dominance, activity level, boldness, confidence, curiosity, sociability, and aggressiveness. This characterization was compared to the previously recorded elephant social behaviors, and results indicated that there was a strong positive correlation between observed agonistic rate of social behavior and rated activity levels. Results are intended to influence the management of captive elephants at KEP and elsewhere.