Do elephants have politics within their groups?

Answer by Rory Young:

Most definitions of politics relate to government, the state and citizenship. However one definition from Wikipedia is as follows:

"Political maneuvers or diplomacy between people, groups, or organizations, especially involving power, influence or conflict."

So could this definition apply in the case of elephants as well as people?

The sound of bull elephants fighting is very distinctive. You hear the tusks knocking, snorting, the occasional roar and trumpet. It can go on for long periods. It happens during the day and during the night. It is captivating to watch.

There are different types of fights among bulls. There are casual "fun" fights. A bull will sidle up to another with his trunk hanging over one tusk, waggle his head, which means he is not serious and then push the other. These are real bonding affairs. They will often lay their trunk on the other's head or even stick it in their opponent's mouth.

Fights for dominance are a much more serious affair. Imagine two seven tonne trucks smashing into each other repeatedly. The roaring and trumpeting are the engines revving and the gears grinding. The bulls will wrestle using trunks and tusks. They will smash their heads into each other and they can do serious harm to each other.

Then there are the really serious affairs such as two bulls in musth fighting. These can result in death. They have many times the normal levels of testosterone pumping through their system. They are essentially out of their minds. The reasonal bull goes into musth is believed to be a counter to in-breeding as amongst elephants dominance and therefore opportunity to mate with the females can last many years.

So why all the fighting? Simple. Power. Or more specifically, dominance.

Every bull elephant in contact with others must know his dominance in relation to those others. If he doesn't then a fight is required to find out.

That's some of the power question but it doesn't stop there. Bulls form friendships and alliances.

For example an old bull will often have "Askaris". These are younger bulls who accompany, learn from him and benefit from his superior knowledge and experience in terms of find food, water and females. They "butter up" the old bull and polish his ego in return.

More food for them means they will be healthier and stronger which in turn means more dominance which means more chance of getting the girls!

Now let's look at the girls. Males move about freely on their on or in batchelor groups, and sometimes join or follow the herds. This can be because there is kinship (visiting mum) or because there is a female in season.

The females stay in their herds. They will chace off unwanted young males and often allow more mature bulls to "shack up" with a female in season because he will be able to chase off all the younger bulls whose continuous harrassing behaviour can make life unbearable for the whole herd and the affected female in particluar.

The dominance structure amongst the females is based on age. The matriarch of the herd will usually be the oldest female and thus the most experienced. The reason for this is again because the herd needs her knowledge to survive.

The females and young live in herds so as to be able to protect the young. The problem is that now enough nutricious food must be found to feed everybody. This is much harder to do for a herd of elephants than for one bull on his own. Also, elephants only absorb a very little amount of the nutrients in their food, so they have to eat a lot and of a wide variety in order to get all the goodness they need to sustain them.

This all adds up to lots of moving and an amazing knowledge of where to find different foods at different times of the year. It can get tough, so the herds will often break up into smaller herds which are easier to feed. They will communicate with each other when in hearing range (up to 12km or so for normal infrasound communication) but otherwise remain apart for long periods, even years at a time.

When they meet up there is a big to do as every one needs to figure out who is who and whos kids are whose and who the chieftainess is.. You may have noticed I said usually the oldest female is the most dominant. well, there are different personalities and just like we have "type A" individuals racing around, so do the elephants.

Some young females will continuously try to take charge of aanother cow's baby or get involved in other elephants' disputes. You know, the usual sort of thing; someone stepped on someone else's trunk or someone grabbed a particularly tasty fruit that someone else wanted and of course Miss Busybody wants to get involved.

So, power, fighting, brown-nosing, protegés, cliques, sex.. Politicking goes on everywhere, even amongst the jumbos..

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