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ESP PhD student places second in Mason’s Three Minute Thesis Competition

ESP PhD student Chase LaDue with a male Asian Elephant

Congratulations to Environmental Science and Public Policy, PhD student Chase LaDue who placed second in Mason’s Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. This annual event challenges PhD student to present their doctoral research within three minutes to a non-specialist audience. Chase was one of thirteen doctoral students to make it to the final round, impressing judges with his brief presentation on his work with Asian Elephants.

The Asian elephant first appeared on the endangered species list in the mid-eighties and remains there to this day due in part to deforestation and expanding human activity. As a result, areas where these animals reside often see increased conflicts between elephants and humans over land, food, and other resources—especially among males experiencing a phenomenon called musth, a period that recurringly heightens their testosterone levels and propensity for erratic behavior and aggression.

LaDue focuses heavily on this phenomenon to improve our understanding of Asian elephant behavioral and physiological biology in order to decrease cases of conflict and improve conservation efforts.

“The conflict is really, really impairing a lot of conservation efforts because people in areas where these elephants reside need to survive,” said LaDue. “If an elephant destroys a farmer’s crop in one night, it may be destroying what that family planned to depend on for the whole year.”

Antagonization with local communities only feeds conflict and hurts the elephants’ conservation potential. LaDue’s research looks almost exclusively on what can be done to further conserve this species—of which there are only about 30,000 left on the planet. He and other scientists look at the male Asian elephants’ reproductive hormones, stress hormones, and metabolic hormones, around that time to better understand the motivations for their behaviors.

ESP PhD student Chase LaDue with a male Asian Elephant

Why should we care about the disappearance of this species? According to LaDue, Asian elephants are considered “ecosystem engineers,” a term used for species that modify their environment in a way that allows for microhabitats that would not otherwise exist.

Just by being in the environment, elephants modify the landscape to allow other species to live there too. If we lose elephants, we will also lose hundreds of other species that depend on them to survive.”

In 2019, LaDue received a Fulbright scholarship to travel to Sri Lanka and study Asian elephants in their natural habitat. Though an amazing experience, it was unfortunately cut short due to terrorism in the country and continues to be on hold during COVID-19. He is a two-time recipient of Cosmos grants (2017 and 2020) that cover research expenses not otherwise covered by supporting funds. He aims to return to Sri Lanka after he graduates to continue his research on the local Asian Elephant population. His fieldwork experience also includes Kenya, South Africa, Zambia, and zoos across North America.

LaDue’s passion for the species started at a young age when he and his family would visit zoos during vacations. As an animal behavior, ecology, and conservation major at Canisius College, he volunteered at the local zoo to work in the elephant barn and started studying elephants more closely while a master’s student at Western Kentucky University. School of Integrative Studies Associate Professor Elizabeth Freeman has, according to LaDue, been a huge advocate for his work and helped secure the funding and opportunities to advance his research.

“A lot of what motivates me is just seeing all the other students in my department who are doing amazing conservation work around the world. I feel like I'm part of this like elite club or something to be able to be surrounded by all these folks, because they're really doing groundbreaking work. It’s really inspiring to be around this group of people.”

Explore LaDue’s research further through his publications titled Scars of human–elephant conflict: patterns inferred from field observations of Asian elephants in Sri Lanka and Mortality Patterns of Asian Elephants in a Region of Human–Elephant Conflict. You can also watch a TED-Ed video on Elephants he helped produce, and another award winning video on musth variations.