Publication Date


Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

Dr. Bruce A. Schulte (Director), Dr. Michael Smith, Dr. Sharon Mutter

Degree Program

Department of Biology

Degree Type

Master of Science


Elephants are cognitive species that exhibit many types of learning. Associative, social, and insight learning have been investigated with elephants, but one of the simplest forms, habituation, has not. As an individual learns that a stimulus is neither harmful nor beneficial, it will decrease its response to the stimulus through the process of habituation. Elephants possess a well-developed sensory system and may habituate to stimuli that could be used for enrichment and/or management. The aim of this study was to examine the habituation process of elephants in response to repeated presentations of two auditory stimuli –buzzing by a disturbed beehive and the sound of banging on pots and pans, as these sounds invoke alert and avoidance behaviors in wild elephants as part of humanelephant conflict mitigation. I hypothesized that elephants would initially exhibit strong reactions to both sounds, but these responses would diminish over repeated trials. I also hypothesized that their responses to the bee sound would decrease more slowly than to the pot/pans sound because bee buzzing represents a biological cue that a threat is nearby. This study was conducted using four female African elephants (Loxodonta africana) at the Nashville Zoo. Elephants received each stimulus for a 10-day period. On the first sound presentation, the elephants reacted by exhibiting distress, avoidance, and vigilance behaviors. Over repeated presentations, the elephants stopped responding to the stimuli, suggesting habituation had occurred. They also seemed to generalize their habituation between the first and second sound, resulting in a faster habituation to the second sound. Although a preliminary study, the results suggest that elephants learn which stimuli are non-threatening and subsequently stop responding to them, most likely through habituation. Specifically, the elephants habituated to bee buzzing and banging pots and pans, two deterrents used to stop elephants from entering farmlands and eating crops. Habituation is a major concern for the development of effective human-wildlife conflict mitigation and zoo enrichment programs. The results from this study indicate that habituation is an important learning process that should be considered during the implementation of captive and wildlife management, even for highly intelligent species such as elephants.


Biology | Zoology