A research team from the University of Nottingham has carried out the first molecular characterisation of the African elephant’s adipose tissue – body fat.

This new information will form the basis of future studies aimed at securing the health and future survival of captive elephants.

The population of captive elephants, both Asian and African, in Europe and North America is not self-sustaining, largely due to poor fertility, resulting in fewer elephants being born.

It is acknowledged that if a solution for these reproductive difficulties cannot be found quickly, captive elephants will face demographic extinction in North American zoos in the next 50 years.

This new study, carried out by a team of scientists at the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, will form the building blocks for later studies that will help scientists start to identify important dietary components for health and reproduction in African elephants.

Using expertise in molecular biology and bioinformatics at Nottingham’s vet school and with access to unique samples from the African elephant, researchers were able to explore some important basic biological questions to achieve a better understanding of elephants.

Leptin – a hormone made by fat cells to regulate the amount of fat stored in the body – is a crucial molecular link between nutritional status, amount of adipose tissue and fertility in many species.

The research has shown it has a similar function in the African elephant.

Lead researcher Lisa Yon said: “This provides important information on the structure and function of adipose tissue in the African elephant, highlighting the crucial genes and nutrients present during different times of life — particularly reproduction and lactation.”

“The information we gained can help us to know how to better provide for elephants’ dietary needs, and what possible impact this may have on their reproductive success. These same methods can be applied to further our understanding on a range of domestic or non-domestic species.”

The research, Molecular Characterization of Adipose Tissue in the African Elephant has been published in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

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