Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Protecting the little one

On a wonderful visit to Serengeti National Park in Tanzania (go there if you can - you will not regret it!), we spotted what had to be a newborn elephant. Clean and dry, but darker and so tiny!



Elephants are huge. A herd of elephants is an impressive sight.  But new baby elephants are relatively tiny, weighing around 110 kg (or 250 lb), just 5% of their mothers’ weight, and so are vulnerable to predation from lions and hyenas. They can’t run away and lack any self-defense mechanism. But they have Mom. And Grandma. And Sister Ekela and Aunt Elene.

Mothers’ helpers

Baby elephants stay with their mothers even after they are sexual mature (6-10 years), and are not even weaned until they are 4-5 years old (growing tusks apparently become a nuisance to the nursing mother, a fair reason for weaning!). During this time, the young elephants learn about their home terrain and its resources (food, water) as well as social norms of the herd, but not just from their mothers.

Elephants practice allomothering (“allo” meaning different): that is, adult females without calves of their own will help guide and protect the young of their relatives in the herd.  They care for, comfort, protect and watch over (“babysit”) others’ calves, accompany the young ones while traveling, and even allow them to nurse in some cases.  Relatives help with rearing young not only in elephants, but also social insects like bees, pack animals such as wolves or jackals, and, of course, primates, including humans.


Allomothering, also called cooperative breeding, frees the biological mom to rest and to eat enough to keep up her strength and milk production, yet it slows the allomother’s feeding efficiency, so it has a cost to her survival (potentially decreasing her fitness).  Why do they do it?

The other females in the herd or pack are usually closely related to the real mother and the little one, and are often nulliparous, that is, they have not yet given birth themselves. By helping their sister-aunt-mother, they enhance their own inclusive fitness by improving the chances that the baby, which shares a high portion of its genes with the allomother, will survive and reproduce. Remember that fitness involves passing on one’s genes to the next generation, so allomaternal behavior makes sense among animals that are closely related by allowing them to improve their broader fitness even before they have their own young. Thus the tight formation of brawny, motivated females staring back at us, surrounding and protecting the lone half-pint peering out from the middle.




Newborn defense
When they decide that another animal (usually a lion), or a group of human tourists, is a potential threat to a newborn, elephant females – mom, sisters, cousins, aunties – will circle around the little one and face outward, tusks held high. There is a low soft rumbling that lets you know they are onto you.  This is not a greeting, and the oversized rugby team in front of you displays its solidarity for a common cause. The little dude or dudette in the middle that is the cause of this commotion is likely oblivious to the threat, but follows orders and stays put.

This video and this one, among others, give a sense of their superb organization.



We seriously enjoyed the teamwork of this herd as much as the antics of the little ellie still trying to figure out how to manage its trunk. Like us, young elephants mature slowly, and it can take over a year to fully learn to use their trunk.

Elephants are probably my favorite animal: they are smart, social, gentle when not harassed, and now under considerable threat from human greed, ignorance, and desperation, so I will add more posts on them in the future!

To learn more:

On African and Asian elephant allomothering:

Lee, P. C. 1987. Allomothering among African elephants. AnimalBehaviour, Vol 35(1): 278-291. doi: 10.1016/S0003-3472(87)80234-8.  and

Gadgil, Madhav; Vijayakumaran Nair, P. 1984. Observations on the social behaviour of free ranging groups of tame Asiatic elephant (Elephas maximus Linn). Proceedings of the Indian Academy of Sciences - Animal Sciences, 93 (3). pp. 225-233. ISSN0253-4118.

On cooperative breeding in general, particularly with respect to humans:
Hrdy, S. 2001. Mothers and others. Natural History Magazine online.  Adapted from a University of Utah Tanner Lecture entitled, “Cooperation, Empathy, and the Needs of Human infants”.

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