Melbourne Zoo is extending a world-first program of musicians performing for its multigenerational herd of endangered Asian elephants, judging it to have improved bonding in the six-member herd.
As zoos have gotten better at looking after their animals’ physical needs, they’ve become increasingly concerned about providing intellectual stimulation, also known as enrichment. “Elephant herds in the wild will come across a lot of new things, whether it is a crocodile in the river or a patch of particularly rich food,” keeper Erin Gardiner told IFLScience. “The zoo environment can become static. We’re aiming to create something unpredictable.”
When a band of roaming musicians participating in one of Melbourne Zoo’s entertainment programs happened to pass the elephant enclosure one evening, some of the elephants’ responses gave the keepers an idea.
Rather than merely take Dr Dolittle's path and talk to the animals the zoo has been experimenting with playing them as many sorts of music as they can think of, while observing the elephants’ reactions. Gardiner said the sample has not been large enough to identify a favorite style, but so far the loudest response has been to percussion, with brass inspiring the most social responses.
Gardiner told IFLScience: “There’s lots of research on playing recorded music to animals, but we couldn’t find anything on live music for elephants.” The keepers believe the visual stimulation could be as important as the sound. They also value musicians’ responses to the animals, changing their performance to reflect reactions.
Visitors to the zoo are welcome to watch if they’re there at the right time, but Gardiner stressed the program is designed for the elephants, and any human enjoyment is a bonus. She described the zoo’s six elephants touching each other with their trunks, flapping their ears, and having the older elephants surround the young ones among the responses recorded.
To non-elephant experts, these might sound like signs of alarm, but Gardiner called them typical for herds encountering something new and assessing if it is positive, threatening, or neutral. These reactions enhance cohesion among the herd, which ranges in age from 5-46.
Man Jai, the youngest, and only male, sometimes broke from the group to approach the fence to interact more closely. Male elephants eventually leave their birth herd, while females usually stay for life.
Even after the music stopped, greater herd cohesion behaviors were recorded on music days, although Gardiner told IFLScience the keepers don’t yet have enough data to publish findings.
Unsurprisingly, the musicians were thrilled at the unusual gig, although the elephants sometimes preferred to stay in the quiet “neutral space” rather than be entertained.
Previous elephant enrichment programs include bubble machines, serving the additional purpose of promoting the zoo’s campaign against outdoor balloon release and proving those brains are big enough to multitask on their ambassadorships against unsustainable palm oil.