Long thought loners, teen male elephants follow the leader
By CHRISTINA LARSON Associated Press
What’s special about this group? It’s only males.
Female elephants are known to form tight family groups led by experienced matriarchs. Males were long assumed to be loners, because they leave their mother’s herd when they reach 10 to 20 years of age.
A new study shows that teenage males aren’t anti-social after all. Younger males were seen tagging along behind older males as they traveled. It’s more evidence in an emerging body of research that shows older males — like their female counterparts — play an important role in elephants’ complex society.
For the study published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers analyzed photos of 1,264 sightings of male African savanna elephants. They found that younger males seldom traveled alone and older males most often led groups of mixed ages.
“Mature male elephants often take a position at the front of the line when they are leading the group,” said Diana Reiss, director of the Animal Behavior and Conservation Program at Hunter College. “In human societies, grandparents are valued because they make really important contributions — helping with child care and passing down knowledge gained over decades. We’re now learning this pattern is also true for some other long-lived mammals.”
Scientists have long known more about breeding herds of female elephants, said Connie Allen, a biologist at the University of Exeter and a co-author of the new paper. “But males also have multifaceted social lives, and their groupings aren’t only shaped by kinship ties,” she said.
When several young orphaned male elephants were introduced into a park in Pilanesberg, South Africa, in the mid-1990s, they were extremely aggressive and killed 40 white rhinoceros. But their behavior was moderated after six older male elephants were added.
“In some way, the older males created order, and all that pandemonium was quelled,” said Carl Safina, an ecologist at Stony Brook University.
Conservation strategies should take into account the mentorship role that older males play, Allen said. “Males are more enigmatic. But it turns out they aren’t such loners,” she said.