In-Depth Analysis of the Vitamin D and Calcium Status of Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus) Managed in a Northern Temperate Climate
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2017

Sara E. Childs-Sanford1, DVM, MS, DACZM; Andrew J. Makowski2, BA; Joseph J. Wakshlag1, DVM, PhD, DACVN, DACSMR

1Department of Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA; 2Heartland Assays LLC, Ames, IA, USA


Little is known about vitamin D and calcium metabolism in elephants, and reports of disease in resulting from imbalances in calcium homeostasis exist.1-3,5 This study monitored analytes associated with vitamin D and calcium status in a herd of healthy adult Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) maintained in Syracuse, NY for 1 yr and correlated that information with dietary vitamin D and calcium intake and ultraviolet light levels. It is hypothesized that seasonal differences in vitamin D status would be observed, regardless of diet, with maximum values during the summer and deficient values during the winter. Serum samples were analyzed monthly for 25(OH)D2/D3, 1,25(OH)2D2/D3, 24,25(OH)2D2/D3, parathyroid hormone, ionized calcium, and minerals (calcium, phosphorus, magnesium). Diet samples (hay and pelleted formula) were analyzed for vitamin D2 and D3, and minerals (calcium, phosphorus). Daily ultraviolet light levels were obtained from the Colorado State University’s UVB Monitoring and Research Program station in Geneva, NY (latitude: Geneva 42.868°N, Syracuse 43.048°N).

The major contribution to the total serum 25(OH)D was vitamin D2, indicating that forage and not cutaneous synthesis was the main source of vitamin D in this herd. Seasonal effects on vitamin D status were not observed in any of the elephants despite significant seasonal variations in ultraviolet irradiance. Total 25(OH)D levels in all elephants were markedly lower than those reported in other studies (mean 7.02±0.55 ng/ml).4-6 This study provides important new information regarding vitamin D metabolism in the Asian elephant, and will serve as a basis for future investigations to determine normal values, monitoring recommendations, and nutritional requirements.


The authors would like to thank the staff of the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, including Sue Faso and the elephant animal care team, for assistance with sample collection and processing.

Literature Cited

1.  Emanuelson K. Nutrition. In: Fowler ME, Mikota SK, eds. Elephant Biology, Medicine, and Surgery. Ames, IA: Blackwell Publishing; 2006:57–65.

2.  Gage LJ. Neonatal elephant mortality. In: Fowler M, Miller RE, eds. Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine, Current Therapy. Volume 6. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Saunders; 2007:365–368.

3.  Hermes R, Saragusty J, Schaftenaar W, Gortizk F, Schmitt DL, Hildebrandt RB. Obstetrics in elephants. Theriogenology. 2008;70:131–144.

4.  Miller M, Chen TC, Holick MF, Mikota S, Dierenfeld E. Serum concentrations of calcium, phosphorus, and 25-hydroxyvitamin D in captive African elephants (Loxodonta africana). J Zoo Wildl Med. 2009;40:302–305.

5.  van der Kolk JH, van Leeuwen JPTM, van den Belt AJM, van Schaik RHN, Schaftenaar W. Subclinical hypocalcemia in captive Asian elephants (Elephas maximus). Vet Rec. 2008;162:475–479.

6.  van Sonsbeek GR, van der Kolk JH, van Leeuwen JPTM, Everts H, Marais J, Schaftenaar W. Effect of calcium and cholecalciferol supplementation on several parameters of calcium status in plasma and urine of captive Asian (Elephas maximus) and African elephants (Loxodonta africana). J Zoo Wildl Med. 2013;44:529–540.


Speaker Information
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Sara E. Childs-Sanford, DVM, MS, DACZM
Department of Clinical Sciences
College of Veterinary Medicine
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY, USA

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