One study found that moving elephants were very attentive to the tracks of feces and urine left by other elephants.
The researchers tracked well-used pathways and found that wild African savannah elephants – especially those traveling alone – are very attentive, sniffing and following the trail with their trunks.
This suggests scents act as a “public source of information,” said researchers from the University of Exeter and Elephants in Africa.
They added that more research is needed to find out if humans can create manufactured elephant trails to divert elephants away from farms and villages, where conflict with humans can destroy communities.
Scent trails can also be laid to improve the efficiency of routes connecting elephant populations between sanctuaries.
Lead author Connie Allen of Exeter’s Center for Animal Behavior Research said: “Our findings suggest an essential role for elephants’ sense of smell in long-distance navigation.
“As elephants follow these trails, they excrete their urine and dung, which reinforces the presence of the path for future elephants.
“We see great potential for these findings to be applied to elephant conservation and management – primarily as a method of manipulating elephant movements.
“We did this study in Botswana, where the main threat to elephants is a conflict with humans.
“By removing the existing scent pathways that put elephants in close contact with humans in problem areas, and redirecting them, perhaps we can reduce such conflicts from occurring.”
Efforts in Botswana to reconnect elephant herds with populations across southern Africa could also be helped using the proposed technique.
Published in the journal Animal Behavior, the study, which examined a predominantly male population, also found that urine from adult elephants was more likely to attract attention than young males.
African elephants are therefore able to discern the age and maturity of individuals they can expect to encounter from these cues, the researchers say.