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Maternal Bonds in the Elephant Realm

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There is no greater love in elephant society than the maternal bond between mother and calf. In these early years, the calf is under the constant watch of his or her mother and knowledge vital to survival is imparted day to day. To observe the relationship between mother and baby elephant reveals a profound level of care and tenderness that is second to none in the animal kingdom

Typically, newborn elephants get to their feet within half an hour, albeit a little wobbly at first. Baby elephants are nearly blind at birth and first discover their world by feeling with their trunk and soaking up the surrounding smells, particularly that of their mother. A baby elephant is born into the world with great fanfare, surrounded by mother, relatives and other females in the herd, immediately joining the rich and complex life of an elephant family. The newcomer will remain the centre of attention for years to come, being fussed over and cared for with great devotion. Juvenile female helpers are called allomothers or aunties and play an important role in rearing elephant calves, ranging in age from 2-12 years old. They provide important relief to the mother so that she may reserve her strength for lactation and feeding her calf. If the attention gets too frenzied, the mother may chase them away, leaving perhaps one of her older daughters. Studies indicate that calves with several allomothers stand a better chance of survival in the wild.

Elephant calves nurse with their mouth (not their trunk) just behind their mother’s front legs. They nurse frequently throughout the day and are entirely dependent on their mother for all of their nourishment for the first year of life. Elephant mothers are very indulgent and fuss over their calf, fondling them, and allowing them to suckle on demand. If the mother is walking and the calf can’t suckle, the calf will scream and generally the mother will give in and stop, unless there is a stronger imperative, such as moving away from danger.

In the first few months of life, calves are so small that they walk under their mother seeking shade and protection. Mother and calf remain very close, regularly touching and smelling each other. If a calf strays too far from its mother, she calls to it by trumpeting or chasing after it. The mother often touches her calf with trunk and legs, helping it to its feet with one foot and her trunk. The mother will bathe her calf, using her trunk to spray water over it and then scrub it gently. She guides her calf by grasping its tail with her trunk, and the calf follows, often holding its mother’s tail. If a calf squeals in distress, their mother and allomothers rush to their aid.

At first, the calf’s trunk resembles an out of control rubber hose and great effort is devoted to mastering its many important functions. Within just a week the calf’s efforts are rewarded by being able to pick up sticks, and by four months, feed itself using its trunk, plucking small bits of grass from the ground and managing to get them into their mouth without dropping them too many times. Drinking presents unique challenges for the young elephant and they can look very awkward trying to suck up water with their trunk and spray it into their mouth, only to lose most of it on the way. They can usually manage this by six months.

After the first year, a calf gradually begins to nibble on plants and the nursing period tapers off. Complete weaning usually occurs by the age of two or three. A major event for both male and female calves is the birth of a brother or sister by which time they are normally four or five years old. This can be a traumatic event for the calf, having grown accustomed to being the centre of attention. The mother will no longer let the youngster suckle and will firmly keep them from doing so to preserve milk for the newborn. Males are most unenthusiastic about being weaned, and by this age are noticeably bigger than their female counterparts. After the initial shock of having a new brother or sister, juvenile females spend as much time as possible close to the calf and become the closest allomother if there is no older sister. The males however show little interest in the calf and move towards independence.

Through constant exploration and trial and error the baby elephant begins to learn who’s who in the family with their mother constantly looking on and providing guidance. In time, the calf learns the various personalities of the elephants in the herd, including which elephants are aggressive, which are friendly, and where they fit into the society.

Male and female elephants are destined to lead very different lives as they leave their childhood behind. While a female will live a highly social life with mothering calves at the centre of it, males break away from the family at sexual maturity, living a somewhat solitary existence, temporarily visiting herds to compete with other bulls for females in estrus with which to mate. These contrasting future roles are reflected in their play as calves. Males tend to wander off further from their mother at a younger age and engage in more head to head sparring and mounting. Females are more often seen playing chasing games, sometimes attacking imaginary foes. The lives of male and female elephants begin to diverge from the age of five. The female forms stronger and stronger bonds with elephants in the herd while the male becomes more and more peripheral. If there are other young males in the family he will go off with them to feed, explore, and play fight.

Females can reach sexual maturity as young as nine and often require reassurance and support when they first go into estrus and find themselves pursued and mated by a large male elephant. Males normally leave the herd at about fourteen years in the wild, but are known to become independent as young as nine. When an adolescent male reaches puberty around the age of twelve, he gets too unruly and tries the patience of the others. He starts responding to an uncontrollable urge to wrestle and fight with other elephants, or to court them sexually. Observing this, his mother and grandmother clearly become aggravated, and escort him to the edge of the group to give the herd some peace. This goes on throughout his puberty until he is either chased from the herd altogether or leaves by his own volition to lead the life of a solitary bull elephant.

In the case of a female calf, the bond with her mother potentially remains unbroken until her death. Together they will help ensure the survival of the species by mothering new generations of elephants, using their knowledge to serve the herd and survive the vicissitudes of life, including attacks from predators, drought, poaching, and land encroachment.

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