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Ivory Poaching Doesn't Weaken Social Bonds Between Elephants, Researchers Say

Dec 18, 2015 05:52 PM EST
When a matriarch of a elephant social group is killed, the mother's daughter is quick to take her place and keep members strong.
(Photo : George Wittemyer)

Despite the ever-increasing demand for ivory, poachers have not broken the unwavering bond between elephants within a social network. In fact, a recent study of grouping patterns among female elephants living in northern Kenya discovered daughters readily step up to the plate to lead elephants' matriarchal societies when their mother is killed. This suggests the animals have a remarkable resilience to human pressures.  

"We were surprised at just how important a mother's associates were to her daughter's new bonds," Shifra Goldenberg, one of the study researchers from Colorado State University, said in a news release. "In the past we've seen young females hanging out together that we wouldn't expect to, but then later as we do the analysis we see that their mothers did know each other and spent some time together."

Elephants have beautiful ivory tusks that are often illegally poached and sold. According to recent estimates, researchers say nearly 100,000 African elephants were killed between 2010 and 2012, solely for their ivory. What's worse is that older elephants are at an increased risk of poaching because their tusks grow with age.

For their study, researchers from Colorado State University and the University of Oxford investigated the complex social structure among adult female elephants living in Kenya's Samburu National Reserve over the course of a 16 year period. Elephant mothers have a very important role as the matriarchs of their social networks, so researchers were interested to see how a mother's status inevitably shapes her daughter's social lives.

Despite a 70 percent turnover of individuals within the population, researchers found the Kenyan elephants' social network remained strong and steady. In most cases, when the group's maternal leader was killed, the oldest and most experienced individual took their place. Researchers also discovered they could predict the future social positions of other daughters based on what social role their mother had.

"The fact that elephants are socially resilient is an important and exciting finding, showing their innate resilience to this unfortunate human pressure," Goldenberg added in Colorado State's news release. "You might expect a society centered around matriarchs to collapse with the loss of group matriarchs, but our study shows that they can adapt to these changes."

In even the most extreme cases -- such as when social groups lost the majority of mature adults -- researchers found the animals' resilience prevailed, and survivors were able to create entirely new networks from distance connections. While this provides a glimmer of hope for the survival of these threatened animals, researchers note their findings should not undermine the fact that poaching has reached an unsustainable level. 

Their study was recently published in the Cell Press journal Current Biology

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