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How Orphaned Elephants Cope in a Motherless World

Nov 25, 2014 01:24 PM EST

With elephant poaching running rampant in Africa, more and more baby elephants are becoming orphaned, and researchers are just beginning to understand the behavior and social strategies these little ones use to cope in a motherless world.

Elephants are highly social animals, and mothers teach their calves many of the social skills necessary to survive. So with 50 percent of their numbers having fallen in the last four decades, many of them mothers, experts worry that parentless elephants are especially at risk.

According to BBC Earth, George Wittenmyser of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, and his colleague Shifra Goldenberg, set out to determine whether these youngsters could somehow rebuild their lives.

Everyone knows the old adage, "An elephant never forgets." Elephants, like people, mourn the death of a family member. They show signs of grief and ritualistic behavior, notes National Geographic. This includes trying to lift the dead body and covering it with dirt and brush, brushing the bones with their trunks, or revisiting the site of their death months, even years later

Despite this harrowing trauma, it turns out baby tuskers are surprisingly resilient. An orphaned elephant needs the support of a herd to survive, so they will either stay with their birth families, join distantly or unrelated groups, or even stick with one family for months just to turn towards another later on.

Wittenmyser, who has been studying African elephants for 17 years, determined this from observations and tracking data from GPS collars.

The researcher paid special close attention to two orphans in particular, Chastity and her sister, living in northern Kenya's Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves. With their mother gone, presumably from poaching, the pair joined forces with an unfamiliar family.

Normally several pairs of adult African elephants and their calves will join together, forming what are called multi-family "bond groups." They will spend 50 to 60 percent of their time together, in fact. So Wittenmyser and Goldenberg were surprised when rather than reconnecting with these familiar friends after losing their parents, Chastity and her sister instead took a greater interest in strangers.

What were the motives behind shunning their bond group? "It wasn't clear," Wittemyer said.

But the decision seemed to pay off, at least for Chastity, who more than 10 years later is still super close with her foster family. Elephants like Chastity "are making family where they don't have family," added Goldenberg. However, her sister didn't fit in quite so seamlessly, and died seven years after joining the group.

"There were times when the sister didn't seem so enthusiastic about joining this group," Wittenmyser explained, suspecting that that fact contributed to her demise.

Though their findings show that these gentle giants are capable of overcoming the trauma of being orphaned and carrying on, it doesn't mean all of these tuskers are so lucky.

Baby elephants are highly dependent on milk from their mother from birth until two or three years of age. And even after they are able to feed on their own, a mother's milk still remains a critical part of their diet, given it's highly rich in important fat. So living without a mother or close family members able to take her place jeopardizes a calf's survival.

Female elephants have a longer pregnancy than any other mammal - almost 22 months, according to National Geographic. At birth, calves are already massive, weighing some 200 pounds and standing about three feet tall. And that's just the beginning.

Besides depending on the mother for food, calves also rely on their elders for protection and guidance, learning from them essentially how to be an elephant. Young female elephants, in particular, need lots of help and stay with the herd for most, if not all, of their lives. Males, on the other hand, become independent by the age of five and may even leave the herd entirely when they reach adulthood.

"They are born with a genetic memory and are extremely social animals," she says. "They intuitively know to be submissive before elders, and the females are instinctively maternal, even from a very young age," Daphne Sheldrick, who established the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, an orphaned elephant nursery and rehabilitation center, told National Geographic.

African elephant numbers have drastically dwindled from millions to just 300,000 today due to the ivory trade, with 100,000 killed in the last three years alone. This leaves babies orphaned and vulnerable. But Wittenmyser and Goldenberg's research shows that there may be hope yet that some of these little guys manage to bounce back and carry on, contributing to the survival of the species.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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