African and Asian Elephants Exhibit Distinct Social Behavior Patterns

Shimon Shuchat
Jan 15, 2018 · 3 min read
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A group of African forest elephants walks through a forest clearing at Dzanga Bai in the Central African Republic.

African and Asian elephants diverged from a common ancestor around 6 million years ago¹ and are two distinct species that differ in many physical attributes². For example, Asians have small round ears and twin-domed heads while Africans have large ears and rounded heads². In addition, only male Asian elephants have tusks while both African elephant sexes have them². These differences in physical appearance were known for quite some time but it wasn’t until recently that the differences in their behavior were examined as well.

Between January 2001 and December 2002, researchers Sherman de Silva and George Wittemyer conducted a two-year study³ comparing the social behavior of the two species. They collected data on African elephants at the Samburu-Buffalo Springs National Reserves in Kenya and on Asian elephants at Uda Walawe National Park in Sri Lanka. The data collection methods used at the two locations were designed to be nearly identical in order to ensure that any differences in behavioral patterns found were due to species differences³.

Examination of the data revealed many significant differences between the two species. To start, African elephant groups, on average, had more breeding females than Asian elephant groups. In addition, the number of females in African elephant groups increased in the wet season while that of Asian elephant groups did not³. African elephant groups were also found to have complex hierarchical systems and a more solidified social structure. Asian elephants on the other hand, did not maintain fixed core social groups and only had around two distinct kinds of social affiliates (short and long term). In addition, African elephant groups were found to be much closer knit than Asian elephant groups. On average, African elephants were nearly twice as associated with all the members of their groups than were Asian elephants. Individual African elephants also formed closer relationships with other group members. In turn, these group members were themselves more likely to have formed relationships than the associates of individual Asian elephants³. In summation, African elephant social groups are much more complex, stable, and closely knit than Asian elephant groups.

De Silva and Wittemyer proposed some possible explanations for these differences. For example, the habitat of Asian elephants contains more vegetation and receives more rainfall. This could result in less competition for food and might reduce the need for fixed social groups³. In addition, Asian elephants have no predators other than humans while the African elephant groups that were studied occasionally lost calves to lion attacks. Established social groups might therefore be necessary for protection³.

African and Asian elephants are two distinct species that differ not only in their physical appearance but also in their behavior. This is demonstrated by De Silva and Wittemyer’s finding that African elephants tend to have more stable, hierarchal, and close knit social groups. This research has large implications since it means that different strategies will likely be needed to conserve the respective habitats of the two species and to manage their conflict with humans. Future research in this area has the potential to reveal new fascinating facts about the behavior of African and Asian elephants and can help us preserve the two species for many generations to come.

References:

¹Krause, Johannes, Paul H. Dear, Joshua L. Pollack, Montgomery Slatkin, Helen Spriggs, Ian Barnes, Adrian M. Lister, Ingo Ebersberger, Svante Pääbo, and Michael Hofreiter. “Multiplex amplification of the mammoth mitochondrial genome and the evolution of Elephantidae.” Nature 439, no. 7077 (2006): 724.

²Grannan, Cydney. “What’s the Difference Between Asian and African Elephants?” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2009.

³De Silva, Shermin, and George Wittemyer. “A comparison of social organization in Asian elephants and African savannah elephants.” International Journal of Primatology 33, no. 5 (2012): 1125–1141.

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