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Older Means Wiser for Elephants

Elephant matriarchs pinpoint predators by ear.

elephant family on the move

Photo: Colin (Flickr)

Groups of elephants that travel with a more experienced matriarch also produce more calves.

Elephant Ears

Female elephants decide whether another elephant is a friend or a stranger by listening to its call.

Identifying elephant calls correctly is important because encounters with strangers often result in disputes. When elephants hear a strange elephant calling, they get defensive and cluster around their calves to protect them. Anyway, a study suggests that the older the matriarch of an elephant family, the better able she is to pinpoint whether the call she’s hearing is from a friend or foe.

What’s more, the same study noted that groups of elephants that travel with a more experienced matriarch also produce more calves.

Age-Old Wisdom

Scientists think it’s because they might be calmer. Because the matriarch does such a good job identifying danger, her family isn’t as stressed and doesn’t waste as much time clustering as the family of a matriarch who sometimes issues false alarms.

So age and experience pay off—if you’re an elephant.

The problem is that when hunters go after the biggest specimens, they often kill the oldest members of the group, leaving the group without the kind of social knowledge and leadership that help them succeed. So scientists are wondering whether this explains low birthrates not only in elephants, but in other species, like the sperm whale, where the largest and therefore oldest members of the group are also hunted.

Read More:

“Elephant Elders Deserve Respect” (Science magazine)

“Friend or Foe? Old Elephants Know” (Science News)

  • Prof. Jewell

    Orca pods that move up and down the west coast (of NA) are quite lead by a post menopausal whale. Probably because in earlier years she has had to seek out places where her young could find food and now knows where the pod is most likely to be able to feed.

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