A noninvasive approach to understanding adaptation, crop raiding behavior, and the fecal microbiota of the African elephant
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For my research I used noninvasive dung samples to study the ecology, evolution and behavior of the African elephant. First, I looked for positive selection in the mitochondrial genome between the two African elephant species, the forest (Loxodonta cyclotis) and savanna (L. africana) elephant. I found evidence of selection in regions that might alter the enzymes that make up the machinery of the oxidative phosphorylation pathway. These mutations may relate to the different metabolic requirements between these two species. Next, I investigated physiological factors that influence crop raiding behavior, which is when elephants enter farms and either consume or destroy the crops. My study is the first to confirm through genetic methods that female elephants crop raid. In addition, my results suggest that crop raiders have fewer parasites than non-crop raiders, thus implying there may be a fitness benefit to this behavior. Lastly, I sequenced and compared the gut microbial communities of forest and savanna elephants. I found significant differences in the types of bacteria found between the two species that might be related to their unique ecologies. My research offers insight into important ecological and evolutionary questions using a free-ranging wildlife species of conservation concern.