Daniella Chusyd at the Birmingham Zoo

Daniella Chusyd, a student in the UAB PhD Nutrition Sciences program and the Nutrition Obesity Research Center (NORC), and Dr. Janine Brown, a reproductive physiologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, have been awarded a grant through the Smithsonian’s Scholarly Studies Awards for Science program titled “Novel assessments of body composition and relation to metabolic status and fat stores in Asian elephants.”

The study will compare female Asian elephants housed in zoos across the United States to female Asian elephants in tourist camps in Thailand. Chusyd says the team is looking at the association between fat distribution and metabolic and reproductive hormones and physical activity levels, and is based on research by Brown on associations between excess body weight and reproductive health problems in zoo elephants.

“For humans, where the fat is distributed – viscerally or subcutaneously – is important in terms of overall health outcomes and we will look at the importance of this relationship in elephants,” said Chusyd, whose previous research focused on the body composition of African elephants in U.S. zoos.

The elephant’s activity during the one-year grant will be assessed using accelerometers, which are often used to estimate human activity. The team will use deuterium dilution to estimate total body fat. They will use ultrasound to estimate subcutaneous fat. Together this will allow for an indirect measure of visceral fat.