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Stellenbosch University expert finds that elephant behaviour’s largely dictated by smell

Bacteria can be shared through the frequent physical and affiliative behaviour of elephants. Members of the same group often rub against each other, or explore each other’s bodies with their trunks, for instance. In the process a tell-tale “herd odour” may be shared among herd members. PHOTO: ENGELA DUVENAGE

Bacteria can be shared through the frequent physical and affiliative behaviour of elephants. Members of the same group often rub against each other, or explore each other’s bodies with their trunks, for instance. In the process a tell-tale “herd odour” may be shared among herd members. PHOTO: ENGELA DUVENAGE

Published Apr 1, 2022

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Cape Town - Have you wondered how elephants are able to determine which of them are part of the herd?

Research conducted by Stellenbosch University elephant expert Katharina von Durckheim has shown that elephants share what is known as a “herd-odour” to help them recognise members of their herd.

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Growing up, Von Durckheim spent a few holidays at the Kruger National Park and because of her mother’s love for elephants, she spent a lot of time observing them and their behaviour at the waterholes.

Years of subsequent work doing research for various conservation sites eventually led to Von Durckheim doing her PhD.

“I dived straight in, as I have always been fascinated by scent, and how it influences behaviour. Elephants have an extremely good sense of smell, and anyone who has watched elephants knows how they greet each other, and how they sniff each other’s faces, mouths, genitalia and dung and urine along pathways and at waterholes,” said Von Durckheim.

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Von Durckheim was specifically interested in whether there is something like a tell-tale “herd odour” or “group odour”. She could not find a link between herd odour and group genetic relatedness. However, an odour for “herd membership” and being part of a specific grouping seems to exist.

Her love and passion for elephants and their behaviour stems from her years of hard work and for her to be able to show it in her studies is a reward for work well done.

Cape Argus

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