Elephants are socially complex creatures. However, little focus is placed on the social interactions of male elephants once they leave their herd during their juvenile years. For this reason, many people falsely assume that males are antisocial, living the remainder of their lives as a lone wolf. However, these misconceptions are far from the truth, and male elephants are far from antisocial, as they are often perceived to be.
What really happens when a male elephant leaves his matrilineal herd? Researchers Patrick Chiyo, Joyce Poole, and Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell were among the firsts to study the behaviors of male elephants⁴.
From a young age, male elephants seem to gravitate towards other males of similar age ranges. Chiyo explains that “males associate with other males of similar age in part because sparring may facilitate the development and maintenance of motor and psychological responses to sudden and unexpected events that occur during play.”² This helps the elephant to learn its strengths and weaknesses and prepares him for male-male interactions in the future. As the juvenile male is maturing, he associates less with his matrilineal herd and spends more time with outside males and herds.
By the age of 14, elephant bulls leave their birth family’s herd, but they do not leave family life altogether. Bulls will often leave their birth family’s herd for another family herd. Poole’s research on Savanna elephants in Amboseli found that male elephants spend 80% of their time within family units until they are about 25.⁴ Each new herd is less welcoming to the newcomer than his birth family’s herd, so the male elephant eventually leaves family herds altogether.
As young males leave matriarchal herds, loose bachelor herds begin to emerge. Although the bonds between males are much weaker and more random than those of females, Chiyo found that bachelor herds are likely to be made up of elephants who are genetically related to each other.² Under safe conditions, male-dominated herds are mostly only large when food and resources are abundant, or mating opportunities are high. However, when there are human threats present, elephants form large herds for protection, even if resources are scarce.
Within the herd, a dominance hierarchy is established according to the individuals’ strengths and dominant behavior. In general, the rigidness of the hierarchy is highly dependent on the availability of water. Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell of Utopia Scientific studied large herds of males living in Etosha National Park in Namibia.³ At watering holes, males act like guys out at a bar, according to O’Connell-Rodwell. Males at the watering hole often show friendly behaviors, such as intertwining trunks, putting their ear over another’s head or rear, and putting their trunk over another’s body. The dominance hierarchy is structured in order to settle conflicts over water scarcity, so when water is abundant, the hierarchy falls apart. O’Connell-Rodwell observed male elephant behavior in both dry and wet years.³ In dry years, the elephants seemed to stay in line within the hierarchy and followed the rules established by the more dominant males. However, in wet years there is an abundance of water, so young bulls are given little constraint as to where they can drink, and there is less oversight by the older males. During the wet years, normally subordinate elephants are observed to have increased aggression. As elephants become more antisocial and aggressive, the dominance hierarchy becomes less clear, and no linear hierarchy could be observed during these years. Each elephant is less sure of where they lie in the pecking order.
Chiyo also observed the correlation between age and social influence within a bachelor herd.² The oldest males seem to have the strongest influence on the cohesion of the herd, as they are more likely to encourage interactions within the herd than the younger males, who go off on their own for long periods of time. Older elephants also take on a teaching and leadership role within the herd. Younger male elephants acquire many learned behaviors by observing their elders. Chiyo expressed his concerns regarding poaching. As older males are removed from the elephant population (they are more desirable targets because of their larger tusks), the social cohesion of bachelor herds may be negatively affected.
The portrayal of male elephants as aggressive beings is common, but not the whole truth. However, there are periods of their life that they are indeed more aggressive — and that occurs upon sexual maturity. When male elephants mature at around 25 years of age, they begin to exhibit extended periods of sexual activity known as musth⁵ (below is a link to a previous Elephant Rumbles article about musth)¹. During musth, an elephant’s desire to mate goes into overdrive and causes them to become very aggressive. Overloaded with testosterone, elephants in musth are easy to bother and easy to provoke a fight. Smaller and normally less dominant elephants become top dogs during periods of musth. When an elephant is in musth, he flies to the top of the dominance hierarchy. Raging with hormones, the other elephants do not dare to challenge him.
At first glance, it may seem like male elephants are quick to quarrel and not much else. However, the social interaction between elephants within bachelor herds creates a different perspective. Male elephants prove to be more social and complex than people often give them credit for.
¹ Carmody, Stephanie Anne. “Don’t Call My Bluff: Aggression in Musth Elephants –ELP Rumbles — Medium.” ELP Rumbles. Medium. October 29, 2018. https://medium.com/elp-rumbles/dont-call-my-bluff-aggression-in-musth-elephants-9c0b35a57e95
² Chiyo, Patrick I., Elizabeth A. Archie, Julie A. Hollister-Smith, Phyllis C. Lee, Joyce H. Poole, Cynthia J. Moss, and Susan C. Alberts. “Association patterns of African elephants in all-male groups: the role of age and genetic relatedness.” Animal Behaviour 81, no. 6 (2011): 1093–1099.
³ O’Connell-Rodwell, C. E., J. D. Wood, C. Kinzley, T. C. Rodwell, C. Alarcon, S. K. Wasser, and R. Sapolsky. “Male African elephants (Loxodonta africana) queue when the stakes are high.” Ethology Ecology & Evolution 23, no. 4 (2011): 388–397.
⁴ Ogden, Lesley Evans. “Earth — Male Elephants Are Not the Loners We Once Thought.” BBC Earth. October 31, 2014. Accessed October 22, 2018. http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20141101-male-elephants-have-a-sweet-side
⁵ Poole, Joyce H. “Announcing intent: The aggressive state of musth in African elephants” Animal Behaviour 37, no.1 (1989): 140–152.