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Mother and Grandmother Elephants Pass Down Survival Benefits To Next Generation

Jan 21, 2016 05:32 PM EST
Amboseli Elephants
Amboseli elephants shed light on how long-lived females shape the lives of their offspring.
(Photo : Amboseli Trust for Elephants)

An Elephant's lifespan in almost as long as a human's – and with age, comes wisdom that can be passed down from generation to generation. In fact, African elephant calves may benefit from having mothers and grandmothers that know the proverbial lay of the land, say reseachers from the University of Stirling, U.K.

In the latest study, researchers focused on the life histories of nearly 834 female elephants living in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. They found that after giving birth to their first child at age 14, female elephants continued to reproduce well into their grandma years, according to a news release. This is particularly advantageous for their offspring, who recieve valuable environmental and social knowledge from their elders. 

Elephant mothers have a very important role as the matriarchs of their social networks, such as leading the herd to safe areas that have plentiful food and water. It follows then that a calf's survival goes hand-in-hand with its mother's life history and experience. For example, a mother may pass down information on where to find water during a dry season, ensuring her family does not die of thirst in years to come. 

For species such as humans, chimpanzees, whales and some birds, living a long life is often associated with higher reproductive rates and a loss in fertility at an older age, followed by years of post-reproductive survival. However, only ten of the 281 Amboseli mothers recently studied ceased reproduction when they grew old. In fact, researchers found that some of the larger elephant families studied had three generations of mother-daughter pairs that gave birth simultaneously, suggesting that a higher reproduction rate is reflective of a long-lived mother within a successful family context. 

"The new and exciting part of our study is the strong effect females have on the reproduction of daughters and granddaughters in their family," study leader Phyllis Lee explained. "Daughters of long-lived mothers lived longer themselves and had higher reproductive rates."

Elephant populations living in the Amboseli National Park have been continuously monitored since 1972, and data regarding more than 3000 elephants has been recorded ever since. 

Their findings were recently published in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.  

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