When Birmingham Zoo veterinarians approached researchers from the University of Alabama at BirminghamSchool of Engineering to help them stop a crack from growing in their oldest elephant’s tusk, the engineers saw an opportunity to use their expertise in materials science to improve the industry standard for the repair process.
Cracks in elephants’ tusks have historically been repaired by adhering a metal ring to the tusk in order to stabilize the crack and prevent it from growing any farther up the tusk.
The Birmingham Zoo asked the director of UAB’s Materials Processing and Applications Development Center, Brian Pillay, Ph.D., to do just that, for Bulwagi, a 35-year-old male African elephant in their care.
Pillay’s immediate response was to innovate the process, and apply some of the science the lab uses in other materials processes to create a new, more robust and seamless treatment for the crack.
“When the team at the Zoo asked me to create this metal ring, I thought, ‘we can do better,’” Pillay said. “We can use what we know about materials development to make something that will work better for the elephant.”
“This is something that’s bridging the gap between what Dr. Pillay’s lab does working with industrial settings and what we do working with a biologic situation,” said Richard Sim, DVM, associate veterinarian at the Zoo. “It’s a first of its kind in that way — combining engineering that would normally be used in structures like bridges and applying it to an elephant.”