Missy and Kimba, Lee Richardson Zoo's two African elephants, have been sporting ankle bracelets. If you come by the zoo over the next few weeks, you may notice the elephants wearing their new jewelry. These ankle bracelets contain GPS units that monitor their movements throughout the day.

This is part of a nationwide research project for elephants in captivity. Like all research projects Lee Richardson Zoo participates in, this project hopes to provide information which will allow us to improve upon the techniques and strategies we use in the care of our animals and thereby helping us to provide the best care possible to all of our animals.

One of the greatest challenges when caring for animals in a captive situation is activity levels. When animals aren't active, they gain weight, just like people. Excess weight can cause numerous health issues such as joint problems, heart disease or even diabetes. Elephants are particularly sensitive to foot issues that can be caused by inactivity and being overweight. When you weigh thousands of pounds, it is important that you have good feet to support you. To avoid weight-related health issues, zoos use numerous strategies to keep their animals active and in a healthy state. Our elephants are weighed at least three times a year to ensure they remain in a healthy weight range. Additionally, by participating in studies such as this GPS study, zoos share their husbandry strategies and can definitively ascertain which strategy is most successful. While the information is valuable, it can be a bit of work to acquire.

Some studies simply require blood samples which can be obtained during a regular veterinary check. Studies like the GPS study Missy and Kimba are participating in require a bit more effort by the staff. Elephants are powerful and curious animals, simply placing an expensive GPS tracking system onto their ankle won't work. The elephants would grab the device with their trunk and remove it or simply rub their powerful legs against a bar to tear the anklet off. Months before the study began, the elephant keepers began placing "dummy" GPS anklets on Missy and Kimba during the elephants' normal training sessions. This gave the girls a chance to get used to wearing a bracelet utilizing the less valuable version to start off with. Once Missy and Kimba became used to the sensation of feeling the anklet on their leg, they have left it alone.

Now that the girls are used to their new "bling" they will be monitored during specific days to see just how much they are moving in a single day. In addition to the GPS unit study, Missy and Kimba are periodically being recorded on video to observe their behavior. During a visit to the zoo you may notice someone with a video camera at the elephant exhibit. These people are docents, or volunteers, who have donated their time to the zoo to help improve the lives of animals at Lee Richardson Zoo and the lives of animals at zoos worldwide.

The next time you visit Lee Richardson Zoo be sure to take in the wonderful privilege of seeing Missy and Kimba and keep an eye out to see if you can spot some science in the making.