Walk through the main gates of the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, follow the path past the cheetahs, the American bison, the pandas, and you’ll find the Asian elephants.
At Pachyderm Plaza, elephants delight children and families who stop to wonder at some of the world’s largest land mammals. But for Janine Brown (’80 MS, ’84 PhD Ani. Sci.), these elephants have been the inspiration and driving force behind her work the past three decades.
Brown heads up the Endocrinology Laboratory at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, the world’s largest reproductive endocrinology lab. When visiting the zoo in Washington, D.C., she enjoys meeting with colleagues and old friends.
Among them are Ambika and Shanthi, the Asian elephants she met when she first started working with the endangered species in 1987.
“They are the two most studied elephants on the planet,” Brown says. “Hands down.”
Brown investigates the intricate patterns, the peaks and plunges, of hormones that can shape an animal’s reproductive health and well-being. While she started out at the zoo working with felids like cheetahs and clouded leopards, she remembers when the elephant manager called her in 1987 with a question that would shape the rest of her career.
“He said, ‘Can you measure hormones in elephants?’” Brown recalls. “I went, ‘Sure. Sure, I can.’”
To find out if Shanthi was ready to breed, Brown began monitoring the elephant’s reproductive hormone cycle, or estrous cycle. At the time, there was no consensus on the length of elephant estrous.
Brown designed a scientific study to pinpoint the cycle, which turned out to be about four months long, and identified the short time frame, about two days, in which the elephant could get pregnant. She also identified the hormone pattern that can be used to time ovulation.
These discoveries led to some of the first techniques for artificial insemination in elephants—no easy task, especially considering the length of a cow’s reproductive tract is about three meters long. And while the study was supposed to stop after the successful insemination, Brown and her team decided to monitor Shanthi’s pregnancy and conditions once the baby was born.
“We didn’t know very much about elephant biology,” Brown says, reflecting on early days at the zoo. “Every year we were discovering something new.”
Brown’s team measured levels of prolactin which led to developing a pregnancy test for elephants. She also found innovative, non-invasive ways to analyze different hormones using urine, feces, and saliva.
Today, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute lab has data on more than 150 species and helps analyze hormone samples, assess reproductive health, and provide artificial insemination services and support to dozens of zoos around the country.
“As soon as we develop something, I want to take it out into the world,” Brown says.
Before Brown found elephants, she studied animal reproduction and collected sperm from dairy bulls for her master’s at Washington State University, then explored endocrinology and fertility in dairy cows in her doctoral research. Along the way, Brown became fascinated with the differences and similarities across animal species, particularly their reproductive systems.
She credits her mentors, including master’s advisor Phil Senger and doctoral advisor Jerry Reeves, for setting her up for success. That mentorship is something Brown takes to heart and wants to carry forward. She’s mentored dozens of graduate students and Smithsonian interns.
Camille Ogdon (’17 Ani. Sci.) had the chance to intern at the zoo a few summers ago before beginning her veterinary program at St. George’s University in Grenada. She researched automatic feeding systems for elephants, which would allow them to better mimic feeding habits in the wild. It was the same summer a bull named Spike was brought to the zoo in hopes he might breed with an elephant named Maharani.
“I am keeping my fingers crossed that in a couple years I will be heading back to the Smithsonian to meet Spike and Maharani’s baby,” Ogdon says.
Brown enjoys working with interns and notes that, in a way, they never really leave. While retirement might be on the horizon for Brown, there’s not exactly an end in sight for her research.
“I can’t imagine anything but elephants,” she says. “It’s like it’s in my DNA or something.”
Most recently, she’s been looking at their hormones to understand more about elephant nutrition, obesity, and geriatric questions about stress and arthritis. She’s also preparing for a trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand, this summer where she established an endocrine laboratory more than a decade ago and mentors Thai graduate students who study elephants.
The day we met at the zoo, she was picking up a thermal imaging camera from the office. She’ll take it into the field this summer as she looks at stress hormones and body conditions of elephants in tourism. The findings will join Brown’s ever-growing volume of science-based recommendations to help inform conservation strategies and improve elephant well-being around the world.