Professor’s Research Focuses on Birds, Bees — and Elephants

Posted: April 23, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

Just as humans reveal much about themselves through their behavior, animals do the same. And for animal behaviorists such as Elizabeth Freeman, assistant professor in New Century College, any sneeze, dance or stomp could be the key to unlocking the mystery behind why animals do what they do.

As a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University, Freeman studied the mating behavior of a fruit fly-size wasp to determine whether its behavior was a courtship dance. (It was, indeed. When they didn’t dance, the male wasps didn’t get to mate.)

Elizabeth Freeman with elephant
Elizabeth Freeman with an elephant at the Smithsonian National Zoo.
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Later, when she relocated to the Washington, D.C., area to study at Mason (she earned a PhD in environmental science and policy in 2005) and work with the Smithsonian National Zoo, Freeman set bigger goals — literally — moving from insects to elephants.

Researchers at the zoo realized that one-third of the female African elephants in North America were not having a normal estrous cycle and therefore were unable to get pregnant. While they looked at possible physiological reasons for this, they brought Freeman in as a behaviorist expert.

Freeman’s research took her across the country to 15 different zoos. She investigated whether the problem was related to their environment or might lie somewhere in the animals’ social structure. Elephants live in a tight society led by the matriarch, typically the oldest female in the group. In other species with matriarchs, these dominant females can suppress submissive females from cycling, and Freeman thought this might be what was happening in captive elephants.

But that was not the case. What she found instead was that the dominant females were the ones who were not cycling. With this knowledge, she is now looking to see whether as female elephants get older, they go through menopause just as humans do.

Along with her interest in increasing the reproductive success of zoo elephants, she studies elephants in the wild. When she’s not teaching at Mason, she travels to Africa each year for two to three weeks to work with about 400 elephants in the Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa, where she and her research assistant use fecal samples to analyze the hormone levels of the elephants and determine their cycles.

Freeman took methods used in the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center laboratory in Front Royal, Va., and altered them slightly so that they can use these methods in the wild for much less cost.

“I’m calling it the ‘Elephant Clear Blue Easy Test’ because it is sort of the same concept as a home pregnancy test. We can measure their hormones based on a simple color change,” she says.

Despite her engaging research in the wild, she believes that having captive animals is beneficial to science and the community. She calls these animals “ambassadors” to their wild counterparts and believes that they allow researchers to learn things about them that are not always possible in the wild. In addition, zoos educate people about the beauty and behavior of these animals, as well as their plight in the wild.

“The majority of Americans will never get to Asia or Africa in their lifetimes, so if there were no zoos, they would never get to see these animals up close and in person,” Freeman says. “These more personal associations engage people to care about wildlife in ways that two-dimensional print or video material never can.”

This article appeared in the spring 2009 Mason Spirit in a slightly different form.

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