Hambrecht, S., Oerke, A.-K., Heistermann, M. et al. 2021. Effects of positive reinforcement training and novel object exposure on salivary cortisol levels under consideration of individual variation in captive African elephants (Loxodonta africana). Animals 11(12), 3525.
Dealing with potential stress in species that have high husbandry requirements, such as elephants, is a challenge for zoos. The objective of the present study was to determine whether positive reinforcement training (PRT) and exposure to a novel object (NOV) for enrichment induced a salivary cortisol response indicative of activation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis and which factors determine individual variation in this regard in captive African elephants. We repeatedly sampled the saliva of ten animals (three zoos) for the analysis of cortisol (SACort) before and up to 60 min (in 10–15 min intervals) after the onset of PRT (three repeats) or NOV (nine repeats), which lasted 10 min. There was considerable individual variation in SACort in response to PRT or NOV. Using mixed models, we were able to control these and to reveal that PRT was associated with high SACort before and relatively low SACort after PRT, while NOV induced a moderate SACort increase. The individual differences in SACort were related to age and sex (NOV), while the effects of zoo, handling method (free vs. protected contact) and reproductive and social status were variable. We conclude that positive affective states, such as anticipation or arousal, should be taken into account when interpreting the differences in the SACort responses between PRT and NOV. In addition, understanding the individuality of stress will support management decisions aimed at promoting captive elephant welfare.