African elephants live in complex family groups composed of related females and their offspring. The members of these groups exhibit lots of cooperation including caring for each other’s offspring, a behavior known as allomothering¹. This can include attending to calves separated from their mothers, ensuring calves don’t get left behind when the group travels, and assisting them when they trip or fall into a ditch¹. While at face value this may appear to be entirely altruistic there are actually many possible benefits that allomothers (who are mostly juvenile or adolescent) derive from the services they provide. For example, they can gain experience in caring for calves and if they care for the offspring of a more dominant female they can potentially get access to higher quality resources¹. In addition, by enhancing the reproductive success of relatives whose genes they share, allomothers can gain indirect genetic benefits by increasing the chances that those shared genes are passed on. Forest elephant allomothers would likely garner similar benefits, although this behavior has yet to be studied in this species.
One extensive study² on allomothering in African elephants was conducted in Kenya at Amboselli National Park by P.C. Lee who documented allomothering behavior in 51 elephant family groups. She found that the calves of young, less experienced females were more likely to receive care from allomothers who were not closely related to them. This is because older females were already being assisted by their previous offspring which gave less related individuals fewer opportunities to assist those mothers². Lee also measured the effect of allomothering on calves’ chances of survival by comparing the mortality rate of calves born into groups with no potential allomothers with the mortality of calves born into groups with varying numbers of allomothers. The results showed that within their first 24 months of life the calves’ mortality rate decreased as the number of potential allomothers increased². While this seems to confirm the positive effect allomothers have on the calves they care for, Lee did note that other factors associated with groups that have more females could also account for these increased survival chances. In forest elephants, this calf survival benefit, if in fact it is due to the allomothering, probably does not apply. Mortality of forest elephant calves is extremely low for the first 10 years of life³, so any allomothering benefit would be very small as well.
An interesting finding of Lee’s study is that allomothers very rarely suckle calves². Only 3.7% of the suckling she documented was from females other than the calves’ mothers. Suckling was sometimes actively stopped by potential allomothers who pushed or slapped the calves with their trunks. Less related, nonlactating females sometimes allowed calves to suckle especially if the babies were visibly stressed before they attempted to nurse. Lee concluded that suckling from allomothers is more associated with comforting calves than actually providing them with nutrients².
Allomothering in forest elephants is commonly seen at the Central African forest clearings that are monitored by the Elephant Listening Project (ELP). In one incident documented by ELP’s Andrea Turkalo (see video below), a lost infant screams multiple times and is then approached by an adult named “7thTusklessIII” who protectively stands over the baby. The two then walk together to join the calf’s mother.
Allomothering may be beneficial to both the allomothers and the calves they care for, although evidence of direct benefits is still lacking. In some cases it may allow the allomothers to gain access to resources and they probably gain in experience with calves. The clearest benefit may be through increasing the survival of young calves, which would provide indirect genetic benefits because allomothers are most often siblings of the calves they help. As researchers continue to study this intriguing behavior there will likely be many more fascinating discoveries that will provide greater insight into the social lives of elephants.
¹Dublin HT. 1983. Cooperation and reproductive competition among female African elephants. In: Wasser SK, editor. Social behavior of female vertebrates. New York: Academic Press. p 291–313.
²Lee, P. C. “Allomothering among African elephants.” Animal Behaviour 35, no. 1 (1987): 278–291.
³Turkalo, A. K., P. H. Wrege, G. Wittemeyer. Unpublished data.
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Conserving the tropical forests of Africa through acoustic monitoring, sound science, and education, focusing on forest elephants