Walk on: Doctoral student researches elephant biophysics

August 18, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS -- Tombi gripped Sophi's tail as they lumbered out of the gate followed by a man counting Tombi's steps.

That man, Michael Rowe, walks elephants.

"Since October I've run or walked about 80 miles with elephants," he said.

While exercise is a critical part of maintaining elephants' health in captivity, Rowe runs with them in pursuit of science. Rowe is working toward his doctorate in biology at Indiana State University by researching how juvenile and adult Asian and African elephants regulate their body temperatures at zoos in Indianapolis, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Toronto.

"I'm looking at how the body size of elephants affects thermoregulation at rest and during exercise," he said.

Before a recent summer morning's perambulations, Sophi stuck out her right rear leg to which Rowe strapped an accelerometer, which he described as an "expensive pedometer."

"With this, I'm going to measure her stride length and stride frequency," he said.

Sophi and Tombi, African elephants at the Indianapolis Zoo, ambled for 1.6 miles within the zoo's confines. During their walk, the accelerometer measured the speed of Sophi's walk, the time of her leg's contact with the ground and her leg's speed in relation to her body's speed. All of the numbers go into Rowe's research of elephant's biophysics.

That information could help a population that is at risk.

"Other research indicates that there is an infant mortality rate of about 45 percent in captivity, which is about the same as in the wild," he said. "However working elephant camps in Asia have a lower infant mortality rate. In the past few years reproductive success in captive elephants has improved greatly, I'm hoping we can increase infant survival. If we don't, in 30 to 40 years the captive population will be extinct."

Rowe began working with elephants as part of his undergraduate honors thesis in 1993. His research at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans changed his life.

"I got interested in research," he said. "I decided I would rather be poor and happy than have the stress of working in a hospital."

Rowe changed his plans of pursuing medicine, but earned a master's degree in 1999 from Louisiana State University's medical school while studying the physiology of elephants in the cold. In 2002, he began working on his doctoral degree at the University of New Orleans. Then Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005; Rowe lost all of his research and his advisor, whose home was destroyed, opted not to return to the flood-ravaged city.

"Basically, the university gave me a year and a half to teach there and find a place to go," he said.

He made a list of people he would like to work with and at the top of that list was George Bakken, an ISU biology professor.

"He's one of the founders of the field of biophysical ecology, which is what I'm doing - measuring the biophysics of heat exchange from the elephant before and after exercise," he said.

Rowe moved to Terre Haute in January 2007 and started anew by writing grants to fund his research. In October 2008, he began researching 25 elephants at four zoos. The elephants range in age from 5 months to 45 years and in size from 600 pounds to 12,500 pounds.

"Most physiology is done on much smaller animals," Rowe said. "When you consider 70 percent of all mammal species have an adult weight of less than 8 pounds, we're looking at something way off the bell curve of size here."


"I'm looking at size-related thermal stresses that may not be apparent in captivity," he said. "Most of our captive elephant births are in the northern cities."

Rowe's research from the sultriness of New Orleans summer to the frigidness of Toronto allows him to have a range of conditions.

"Each location has drastically different thermal loads, seasonal changes," he said. "For instance, last month when I was in New Orleans the average high temperature was over 100 degrees. In Indianapolis, we're just scraping into the 90s but we have winter conditions where it gets cold."

Rowe visits each of the zoos for two weeks during each of the seasons to conduct his research, which includes taking rectal temperatures and thermal images of the elephants.

"They don't sweat and they don't pant," he said. "In the wild elephants travel in the morning and evening but seek shade in the heat of the day. So by walking captive elephants at different times of day and in different temperatures we can quantify the relationships between locomotion and environmental conditions."

In two miles their body temperatures will rise about one degree, but in a half mile run they can generate enough metabolic heat to light the floor of an office building (or two-hundred sixty 100 Watt bulbs), Rowe said.

Researching the elephants is something that Rowe finds gratifying.

"I'm enjoying studying how body size effects physiology and governs how animals interact with the environment. These are the largest things walking the planet. They're a threatened (African elephants) and endangered species (Asian elephants). They face extinction in both captivity and in the wild," he said. "We're working toward solving the issue. I would like to see them around for my grandkids."

Rowe's research has received funding from the Lilly Foundation, Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium and Indiana State University School of Graduate Studies.

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Contact: Michael Rowe, Indiana State University, biology doctoral student, at mrowe6@indstate.edu.

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, assistant director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or jennifer.sicking@indstate.edu

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/616115389_aAkda-L.jpg

Cutline: Michael Rowe, ISU doctoral student in biology, takes the thermal image of Tombi at the Indianapolis Zoo as part of his research into how juvenile and adult Asian and African elephants regulate their body temperatures. ISU Photo/Kara Berchem

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/616148987_XxyiM-L.jpg

Cutline: Michael Rowe straps an accelerometer to Sophi's leg to measure her speed during a walk around the Indianapolis Zoo. ISU Photo/Kara Berchem

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/616157679_DG24J-L.jpg

Cutline: Sophi, the elephant, leads the way on a walk at the Indianapolis Zoo with the Indianapolis skyline in the background. ISU Photo/Kara Berchem

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/616161298_sL9mw-L.jpg

Cutline: Michael Rowe gives directions while taking thermal images. ISU Photo/Kara Berchem

Story Highlights

Michael Rowe is working toward his doctorate in biology at Indiana State University by researching how juvenile and adult Asian and African elephants regulate their body temperatures at zoos in Indianapolis, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Toronto.

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