Summer Research in San Diego

By Lisa Barrett


You’ve previously read about my visit to Sri Lanka and my project with zebra finches in grad school at the University of Wyoming. This summer I conducted research with elephants at the San Diego Zoo as part of my Ph.D. dissertation with invaluable help from a UW Biodiversity Institute grant.


Tembo was one of the easiest elephants to learn because of her distinctive right ear.

Phase one of my research at the zoo involved collecting information about each elephant’s personality. I collected several hours of elephant observations and recorded their every move (also known as a focal follow). I kept track of who was near whom and for how long. This meant I needed to “learn the elephants”—or memorize who is who. I also asked each elephant keeper to score the elephants on their personalities through a survey.


Filming elephant behavior!

Other awesome critters at the zoo:










Giant panda

For the second phase of my project I sought to measure the elephants’ problem-solving abilities. I presented them with novel foraging tasks to see how quickly they learned how to extract a tasty food reward, such as popcorn. As you might imagine, encouraging an enormous animal to participate in a research test is not an easy task, and I relied heavily on the keeper staff to move elephants around different enclosures so that I could carry out my trials. Nevertheless, if an elephant did not want to come to research, they didn’t, and no one could/would make them!


Making popcorn…for research!


An elephant retrieving food from a feeder (right) while another (“freeloader”) benefits (left).











The elephants were target trained to present certain body parts to the keepers so that keepers could perform health checks.

Conducting this research is just the beginning. I will spend this semester extracting behavioral data from videos of the elephants for analysis. After that, I will be visiting two more zoos who have agreed to participate in this project. Although I have a lot further to go on my elephant project, I am looking forward to sharing my results with you someday soon!


Me and my helpful research assistant.


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