Perhaps one of the reasons why people seem to be so enamored by elephants is not only due to their sheer size, inspiring the coinage of the word “elephantine”, but also they possess bonds and behaviors that almost seem to resemble our own human values.
Although an extremely important form of communication between elephants is exclusively vocal, I am reserving an entire blog post for that topic. Stay tuned!
Visual messages, though, are conveyed in a similar way to how other animals communicate: through posture and movement of head, tail, ears, and trunk- with that being the anatomical exception in other species. The use of olfaction (smell) plays an extremely important part in social interaction, as it is hypothesized that even detection of pheromones, during mating or imminent danger is set off and then detected by what is thought to be the vomeronasal organ. The trunk, while also being a conduit for smell, is also used socially to gently touch or viciously attack one another. Mothers use their trunk to guide her infant, and elephants often greet each other by touching one another’s mouths with the tip of their trunk.
How else do these giants communicate?
Like almost all animals, elephants follow water. Where it is moist, they will go! Elephants have been known to travel more than 40 km (25 miles) to reach locations of new rainfall in the hopes of a) drinking and b) absorbing the rich grass that will grow from it. Elephants are also known to migrate in pursuit of fruits.
Elephants live in groups, and as you and I both know: it creates such social issues! The benefits of living in a group include: group defense, greater mating opportunities, and teach of young. While males often either go off in bachelor herds or sometimes even singles, females remain in family units made up of closed related adult cows and their young babies. The families usually are made up on two or three sisters and their calves or one single elderly cow with a few of her adult daughters and their calves. Sometimes strangers enter a group and join permanently. No more than 10 + offspring are usually seen. When calves mature, they usually stay with the family and even breed while with the family. When the size of the family herd grows, a subgroup will separate and form their own herd. That doesn’t mean they won’t “hang out together” again. In fact, related family groups of 2-4, known as kinship groups, tend to travel along the same routes, sometimes even together.
Males are kicked out of the group when they reach puberty, and they only later associate with a group if a cow is in estrus (ready and set to breed).
The matriarch, which is the oldest female, leads the family, and as you can only imagine, the bonds between one another are extremely great. During times of danger, the family forms a defensive circle around their calves, while adults face outward. The matriarch, sometimes with some support, will then go over and view the threat. If she doesn’t retreat from the threat, she will often advance, ears extended and trumpeting loudly. This sadly, causes the matriarch to fall victim first, leaving the family leaderless if they are being attacked, namely by poachers.
If injured, the family often runs to the family member’s aid. They will usually try to lift their beloved member off the ground and carry them by supporting him/her on each side. If they do lose a member, amazingly, elephants are known to mourn the death of a family member, and can even recall the “burial” place of the elephant. After an elephant dies, they spend from hours to days sniffing the remains, picking up the bones and remains. Sometimes they even put them in their mouths or even wear them on their heads! What this means to the elephants remains unknown.
Once they turn between 20-29 years old, mature males reach a yearly phase called “musth”, which is believed to be an evolutionarily advantageous hormonal phenomenon to increase their competitiveness when breeding. Their blood testosterone levels can reach up to 60 times greater than normal physiological levels (though I’ve heard of a case that even reached 100 times greater in an Asian elephant). This causes them to become extremely aggressive as they wander in search for a female to mate with. This cycle lasts ~60 days. Avoid elephants at all cost during this time, which can be monitored as first occurring by the presence of a thick tar-like discharge, known as temporin, excreted from their temporal glands. Musth elephants will also display a higher carriage of their heads and ears. They will persistently grumble softly, which I think sounds like a “moped engine”. While musth occurs in both African and Asian bulls, it is more accentuated in Asian elephant males.
Males, as per usual, are more likely to engage in fights- especially over girls. Cows reach sexual maturity at 10, and once she begins to breed, she will usually produce a calf every 3-4 years (usually between the ages of 16-40). The reproductive cycle of elephants tends to correlate to the rain cycle. During times of greater hydration, food is more plentiful, allowing females to gain more body fat, which is necessary for ovulation, causing them to be in heat during the second half o fthe rain season and first few months of the dry season.
Once pregnant, they stay very pregnant for 630 days (or almost 2 years!!!), birthing calves right at the beginning of the wet season- in time for rich nutrient uptake! Calves during their first year have a 48-95% chance of survival (depending on if they are born in drought or wet years, respectively). During birth, other cows collect around the new calf, and the “mid-wife” cows assist in removing the fetal membranes and help the calf to its feet. The young females, known as “allomothers”, help bring up the calf, which is thought to increase its chance of survival while preparing them to become effective mothers.
Incredible creatures, right? Let me know your thoughts on elephants!