Estimation of gut passage time of wild, free roaming forest elephants
Seed gut passage times, the time from ingestion to defecation, and frugivore movement patterns determine patterns of seed deposition across the landscape and are thus crucial parameters to quantify in wild populations. Recent advancements in satellite and telemetry technologies mean that animal movement patterns are readily quantifiable in increasingly high resolution. However, data on wild frugivore gut passage times are scarce to non-existent due to the difficulty of monitoring seed ingestion and defecation in natural habitats; therefore, GPT estimates are often extrapolated from captive species whose diets and activity patterns may have limited transferability to free-ranging populations. Here we develop, trial and deploy a suite of model seeds to address this shortfall in wild African forest elephants Loxodonta cyclotis – one of the most effective seed dispersers in the tropics. We use a combination of ‘active’ seed mimics, which indirectly measure gut passage through recording temperature fluctuations, and ‘passive’ seed mimics, which serve to mark the point of defecation to allow gut passage estimation from time-stamped GPS collar data. In doing so, we present the first ever GPT estimates from wild forest elephants: mean = 39.8 h (min = 16.6 h; max = 113.7 h). The estimates were derived exclusively from passive seed mimics (plastic beads and modified native seeds) as all active seed mimics were rejected by the focal elephant. The methods described are translatable to other free-ranging, GPS-collared, species and if widely adopted, will begin to address the current gap in our understanding of seed dispersal by wild frugivores.