Elephants on the move pay close attention to scent trails of dung and urine left by other elephants, a study suggests.
Researchers monitored well-used pathways and discovered that wild African savannah elephants – especially those travelling alone – were highly attentive, sniffing and tracking the trail with their trunks.
This indicates the scents act as a “public information resource”, the researchers from the University of Exeter and Elephants for Africa said.
They added that more research is needed to find out whether humans can create artificial elephant trails to divert elephants away from farms and villages, where conflict with humans can cause devastation to communities.
Scent trails could also be placed to improve the efficiency of routes connecting elephant populations between protected areas.
Lead author Connie Allen, of Exeter’s Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour, said: “Our findings suggest an important role of an elephant’s sense of smell in long-distance navigation.
“As elephants follow these trails, they deposit their own urine and dung, which reinforces the pathway’s presence for future elephants.
“We see great potential for these findings to be applied to elephant management and conservation – primarily as a method for manipulating elephant movements.
“We carried out this study in Botswana, where the main threat to elephants is conflict with humans.
“By removing the existing scent paths that lead elephants to close contact with humans in problem areas, and redirecting them, perhaps we could reduce such conflicts happening.”
Efforts in Botswana to reconnect elephants with populations across southern Africa could also be helped using the proposed technique.
Published in the journal Animal Behaviour, the study, which examined a predominantly male population, also found that urine deposits from adult elephants were more likely to attract attention than those of younger (subadult) males.
The researchers say African elephants may therefore be able to discern the age and maturity of individuals they can expect to encounter from these cues.
The study received funding from the Leverhulme Trust.