Age-specific differences in Asian elephant defecation, dung decay, detection and their implication for dung count.
1. In vertebrate population estimation, converting faecal density into animal density requires information on the faecal production rate, decay rate and faecal density. Differences in the above factors for long-lived species across age classes were not evaluated. We have evaluated these factors associated with the dung count of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in the tropical forest of southern India. 2. The defecation rate of elephants was determined in semi-wild elephants at the Mudumalai elephant camp. The relationship between dung bolus diameter and age was determined to estimate the age of the elephant. The total and age-specific elephant density based on dung bolus diameter was estimated. A total of 24 transect lines of 2-4 km (125 km) were sampled in the study area. An experiment was conducted to assess the detection probability across the age classes of dung piles. The dung decay rates across age classes and seasons were determined by marking fresh dung piles (n = 1551). The dung-based age structure assessment and its limitations were evaluated. 3. The mean defecation rate was 13.51 ± 0.51 per day. The defecation rate was significantly lower for the younger age class and increased with the age of elephants. Defecation rateswere significantly lower in the wet season than in the dry. The dung bolus diameter positively increasedwith the age of elephants, and the growth curve can be used to predict the age and age structure of elephant populations. 4. The disparity in the dung production rate results in the lower availability of younger age class (juvenile and calf) dung in the transect for counting, which results in lower dung abundance. The detection probability of dung piles of younger age classes was low (0.58). The survival rates of dung piles of younger age classes were lower and increased with the age of elephants in the wet season. Hence, the demographic assessment of the population based on dung needs to consider age-specific differences in dung production, decay and detection probability. Although the demographic assessment using dung provides insight into population age structure, it has limitations in predicting age structure for young elephants.