You May Be Fatter Than the Average Elephant

If you thought elephants were chubbier than you, it’s time to think again.
Fabienne Lang

A team of international scientists highlighted in a recent study that typical elephants carry less body fat than the average human. 

Before you run to your scale in a frenzy, not to worry, the study has more to do with captive elephants carrying less fat than expected than with your own weight. 

The study was published on Tuesday in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Captive elephants were thought to be overweight and to suffer from lower birth rates than their wild counterparts — even facing a fertility crisis, the researchers, led by Daniella Chusyd of Indiana University, explained in a press release

Yet, until this study, no measures of captive elephants' weight were accurately measured. So the team decided to look at Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in a zoo to get a better understanding of why they had lower birth rates than their wild peers, and if it was linked to potential obesity.

They quickly noticed that they were just as active as their native cousins, and once they measured their statistics, realized they weren't as fat as was previously assumed. 

The team used a system where it measured the amount of water in the elephants' bodies. This way, the researchers would be able to determine the level of fat in elephants by subtracting the water weight from their body mass.

How they measured an elephant's water mass was through a smart trick. They soaked bread with water and fed it to them and it turns out that the elephants loved this treat. 

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The team's conclusions

The results were clear, obesity isn't a factor for lower birth rates in Asian elephants held in captivity. From its data, the team observed that male elephants carry less fat, 8.5 percent, than female ones, approximately 10 percent. When looking at those numbers in humans, the average human has between 6 and 31 percent body fat. 

So, it turns out you are most likely fatter than an elephant. 

And in terms of the general fitness of captive elephants versus wild ones, the team attached a fitness tracker on the elephants. The team discovered that regardless of whether elephants were in a zoo or in the wild, they appeared to walk on average the same distance per day, between 0.016 km to 2.7 km (0.01 and 1.7 miles), meaning they were just as fit. 

And with regards to the infertility issue, the team concluded that elephants' disrupted fertilities were similar to those in humans — the less fat a person has, the more disrupted their fertility cycles are.

All in all, the study pointed out that obesity and low fitness were not issues for elephants in captivity.

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