It is obvious that without appropriate nutrition, animals will not maintain a high standard of health, reproduction and well-being. A great deal of research has been undertaken to understand the nutritional requirements of wildlife species, and the health of these species in zoos indicates these diets are adequate.
Nutritional research at Taronga Zoo is focused on the physiology of animal species - how they digest food sources, why specific food species are preferred and how that may change with a changing environment. The Zoo’s experts are also interested in the potential for disease to increase (or otherwise change) the nutritional requirements of the animals and how that changes the carrying capacity of its habitat.
A novel application of nutritional physiology is the opportunity to develop safe, food based deterrents for wildlife control in areas that border human communities and agricultural lands.
Taronga has no dedicated nutritional physiology staff but is fortunate to have active collaborations with independent, academic and government researchers.
Nutritional Physiology of Asian Elephants
While Asian Elephant nutrition has been studied overseas, no information is available for Australian conditions. Assumptions based on the physiology of other large herbivores are problematic because elephants, being much larger, may have different nutritional needs. This preliminary study indicated that these assumptions may not be appropriate in determining the best possible diet for our elephants.
Remote Determination of Free-Ranging Diets
Plants eaten by herbivorous species have a specific chemical signature. Even after digestion, the signature remains in the faecal samples of the species which eat them. Zoo-based populations of wildlife species can help determine these plant signatures by being fed known species and assessing the signatures in their faecal samples. This will help us develop the reference data needed to determine the diet of free-ranging animals from their faecal samples alone, and discover how diets change under different environmental conditions.