How do adult male elephants interact with other elephants?

Answer by Rory Young:

Life is unfair. Life in the world of elephants is very unfair. Male elephants are much better off in so many ways than the females.

A solitary bull elephant feeding quietly on his own. The scene is calm and peaceful.

Male elephants are large enough and powerful enough to defend themselves against any predator (except for man in very recent times). Therefore they are not obliged to stay with a herd for safety in numbers. Being able to move around on their own is a great advantage. Solitude means that a much, much smaller amount of food needs to be found every day.

A cow herd on the move. They are very aggressive. The female at the front is missing most of her trunk.

Cow herds on the other hand are forced to roam great distances in order to find enough food to feed the whole group every day. This is a more stressful and dangerous existence as the females and calves are vulnerable to attack by lions. Even adult female elephants can be attacked by lions. Linyanti in Botswana has been famous for its prides regularly bringing down adult female elephants. The cow herds therefore are very defensive and busy with less idle time.

Two young adult bull elephants playfully working out who is the more dominant.

So, elephant bulls have a lot more "idle" time on their trunks than the females. However, they don't waste this extra time feeling lonely and standing around doing nothing. They get together with their buddies and do the elephant equivalent of arm-wrestling. They figure out dominance by fighting.

A "casual" approach. His trunk is not only slung over one tusk but he is sucking it! How less serious could a suggested sparring session be?

This fighting can range from mild, playful pushing to raging battles to the death. There is much language and ritual involved with bulls approaching each other and indicating their intention. This can be a casual approach with the trunk hung over one tusk to indicate a "relaxed" disposition or a head-held-high, roaring attack. The laid back approach will usually be a casual session to figure out who is stronger whilst the death match will usually involve two bulls in musth.

 

A bull just going into musth. His penis were beginning to drip, he was secreting from the temporal gland and he had a bad, bad attitude. A girl or a fight was what he was after.

Musth is when a male elephant goes "into season". He will have as much as two hundred times the normal level of testosterone pumping through his system. When a bull goes into musth he turns into a monster. All he wants is a female to mate with and will fight to the death to get it. Other bulls that are more dominant will get out of his way. As elephants never stop growing, the older bulls are usually more dominant. Musth allows younger, less powerful bull a chance to "get their leg over". There is a cost to this though. A bull in musth hardly eats as he only has one thing on his mind. They cannot stay in musth for more than three months or so or they would probably die. They lose a lot of weight during musth and come out of it exhausted. The other big downside is of course that should they bump into another bull then one or both of them will very likely be killed.

I will give you an example of the behaviour of bulls in musth.

I was once driving along the Matusadona shoreline in Zimbabwe. Matusadona is famous for its big-tusked elephants  and one of these huge fellows started moving fast towards me from half a kilometer away. There was no way he could see me from that distance so he was heading towards the sound of the vehicle.

I stopped and waited for him. As he drew closer I realised that he as in musth. All the signs were there, most notably his attitude. He was striding with his head high. When he was a hundred metres away he charged.

I drove away, just keeping the same distance between us to see what he would do. When he realised that he couldn't catch up to me he suddenly, in full charge, collapsed his front legs driving his tusks deep into the ground, all accompanies with loud roaring (not trumpeting).

There is another important advantage to bulls going into musth. It actually gives the girls a break.

When a female goes into season every male for miles around will try to mate with her. The whole herd will often try to chase of large numbers of excited males and the poor girls will become exhausted by it all. Hardly a situation likely to encourage conception.

When a bull in musth turns up however, everything changes. The other bulls back off and the female in season will attach herself to him so as to be left alone by all the others. The rest of the herd understandably encourages this.

Generally males are not welcome amongst a herd and females also do not socialize with females from other herds even. There is of course one great exception to this rule…

Every boy has to visit his mum from time to time!

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2 thoughts on “How do adult male elephants interact with other elephants?

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