How female wisdom in old age helps elephants survive

Mar 16, 2011
Elephants in Amboseli National Park. Credit: Graeme Shannon

( -- The value of mature female experience may be something that human society needs to be reminded of from time to time but elephants, it seems, have good reason never to forget.

Experiments conducted by University of Sussex behavioral ecologists Dr. Karen McComb and Dr. Graeme Shannon among the wild African of Amboseli National Park in Kenya show how elephant groups are guided by the wisdom of a female leader or matriarch, accrued through a long lifetime of experience.

The older and more experienced the matriarch, the researchers found, the more attuned she was to potential danger to the group, and the better able to distinguish between higher and lower levels of threat posed by predators.

The findings of the experiment are published today (Wednesday 16 March) in the journal .

The research team used novel experiments to determine how good elephants were at making crucial decisions about predators - playing back recorded lion roars to family groups (related females and young led by the matriarch) and monitoring their reactions.

While elephants are relatively impregnable to most predators due to their size and aggressive group defence, male lions present a very real threat. A male lion is more than capable of bringing down and killing a young elephant even when hunting alone, whereas female lions generally only succeed when hunting in large groups.

The team found that the oldest matriarchs (in particular the 60 plus age class) were more likely to engage in prolonged periods of listening and greater defensive behaviour when exposed to male lion roars (as opposed to female roars). This resulted in more intense bunching behaviour among the family group (where adult elephants bunch together to protect young calves) and mobbing approaches, where the elephants actively move towards the source of the roars, sometimes even mounting an aggressive charge.

The researchers conclude that this ability to discern subtle threat levels from differences in acoustic cues is accrued over time and through the experience of the matriarchs of previous encounters.

The study provides the first direct evidence that individuals within a social group may benefit from the influence of an older leader because of their enhanced ability to make crucial decisions about predators - a key element of ecological knowledge.

Dr. McComb has previously identified how elephant matriarchs build a "social memory" of friendly faces or foes over a long lifetime - vital to operating successfully in complex social networks.

This latest research on identifying potential predators adds to our understanding of an older leader's pivotal role in elephant society, even after their reproductive capabilities have ended. It highlights the vital importance of the oldest individuals in natural populations of elephants and other mammals with long lifespans and advanced cognitive abilities such as whales and primates.

Explore further: Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

More information: 'Leadership in elephants: the adaptive value of age', Karen McComb, et al. Proceedings of the Royal Society B (March 2011).

Related Stories

Elephants can 'smell danger'

Oct 18, 2007

Researchers at the University of St Andrews have found that elephants are remarkably perceptive when it comes to recognising the degree of danger posed by different groups of individuals.

Study: Elephants might seek revenge

Feb 16, 2006

An increasing number of incidents involving African elephants attacking humans is leading some scientists to believe the animals may be seeking revenge.

Social standing influences elephant movement

Oct 29, 2007

When resources are scarce, who you know and where you're positioned on the social totem pole affects how far you'll go to search for food. At least that's the case with African elephants, according to a study ...

Male elephants get 'photo IDs' from scientists

Aug 15, 2007

Asian elephants don’t carry photo identification, so scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society and India’s Nature Conservation Foundation are providing the service free of charge by creating a photographic archive ...

Vietnam War Technology Could Aid Elephant Conservation

Jun 20, 2005

Seismic sensors developed to track enemy troop movements during the Vietnam war could help ecologists monitor and conserve elephant populations, according to new research published in the British Ecological Society's Journal ...

Recommended for you

Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

Apr 18, 2014

( —The incident was captured by Dr Bruna Bezerra and colleagues in the Atlantic Forest in the Northeast of Brazil.  Dr Bezerra is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol and a Professor ...

Orchid named after UC Riverside researcher

Apr 17, 2014

One day about eight years ago, Katia Silvera, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Riverside, and her father were on a field trip in a mountainous area in central Panama when they stumbled ...

In sex-reversed cave insects, females have the penises

Apr 17, 2014

Researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on April 17 have discovered little-known cave insects with rather novel sex lives. The Brazilian insects, which represent four distinct but re ...

Fear of the cuckoo mafia

Apr 17, 2014

If a restaurant owner fails to pay the protection money demanded of him, he can expect his premises to be trashed. Warnings like these are seldom required, however, as fear of the consequences is enough to ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Mar 16, 2011
What about those wise LATINA elephants?

More news stories

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

( —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

Making graphene in your kitchen

Graphene has been touted as a wonder material—the world's thinnest substance, but super-strong. Now scientists say it is so easy to make you could produce some in your kitchen.