Tuesday, January 24, 2017

#ElephantTuesdays: oh mama! a female´s role 🐘

It is generally known that elephants live in -large- groups, and even that these groups are leaded by a female. But how are they formed? How is the decision made? What are the duties of a leader in the group? There have been several studies on this interesting topic; a very relevant one is known to be the longest continuous elephant research project ever developed, was conducted at Amboseli National Park in Kenya

Elephants live in a fission-fusion society, accumulating social and ecological knowledge over decades, and with mother-offspring bond units to clans. These groups gather approximately 8-12 individuals (in the case of African Forest Elephants the groups might be smaller), are formed by related females and leaded by the matriarch, who is typically the eldest and largest female. All members feed, rest, move and interact in a coordinated way and have very close ties.

Family groups are active, as they constantly build up and break down, and therefore it´s usually difficult to distinguish a completely formed group, but generally speaking, four different kinds of units can be distinguished among elephant fission-fusion social structures:

Mother-calf units: both in Asian and African elephant societies, calves lie at the core of the elephant family with the matriarch serving as the head.

Familywithin the family group, young females (nulliparous) are engaged as the so-called allomothers

 original video: ACP0002hmo

Bond groups: herds can split in related groups, that might at some point gather in closely related families, also called kin groups. Bond group ties are weaker than family ties, but still bond group members assist and defend one another.
Clans, or assemblages of bond groups. Clans are defined as those families and bond groups that share the same dry season home range.

Mother-calf units and families are stable groups, while bond groups and clans are known to be seasonal.

As the eldest female of the group, a matriarchs is a `source of knowledge´ to the others, and in a female-led society, the individual role is the result of age, size, kinship and reproductive condition. The bonds to the matriarch are so strong, that the herd would possibly break after a matriarch´s death.

The matriarch´s tasks are:

·     To lead the group; she will decide when and where to wander, and as a result, what to feed on. She also knows where to go to find the best water sources. However, suggestions are often made by any other member of the group, typically by adults.
·      Protection; she keeps the group away from threats, like human settlements, etc. She will place herself in front of the potential danger, so that she will be attacked first. She will then be protected by the other females of the group, confirming their strong family bonds.
·      She controls the group, noticing where other members are to gather them in case or danger.
·      She educates the group: by teaching the next matriarch.

The female in the group who is a potential matriarch is hard to tell apart; some elephants are natural born leaders, and they start to display their leading abilities at an early age, but sometimes not. As a general rule, a female will succeed in her attempts to be the matriarch if she is confident, well-connected and able to command the respect of others. And all these qualities must be proven all over the years, until the members of the herd are able to recognize her as their leader. So the wise matriarch will be a combination of both natural leadership qualities (“personality”) and long experience; thus, she needs to be genetically and socially well connected to all the members of the group.  

And what about the males? What is the male role in an elephant society? In former elephant posts we discussed about the different life stages of the elephants. When adolescence occurs (at the age of 6 – 15), males leave the matriarchal herd to join other males. Independent males are seen in small male groups, and will go from one family to the next during sexually active periods. The males can build strong bonds, but still not so strong like families.
Young males often gather in unstable bachelor groups (all-male groups), sometimes associated with an adult male. Solo males have already reached the adult age:

original video: ACP000c165 

* In the video below, could you tell who the matriarch is?


Murray E. Fowler, Susan K. Mikota (2006): Biology, Medicine, and Surgery of Elephants

Elefanten in Zoo und Circus, European Elephant Group (EEG), Das Elefanten-Magazin, January 2015.

Elephant Voices: https://www.elephantvoices.org/

*answer here

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