Expert Voices

In Elephant Society, Matriarchs Lead (Op-Ed)

elephants, ivory, poaching
Savannah elephants in Uganda, Africa. (Image credit: Julie Larsen Maher; Copyright Wildlife Conservation Society.)

Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is one of the world's pioneering cognitive ethologists, a Guggenheim Fellow, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Bekoff's latest book is Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed (New World Library, 2013). This essay is adapted from one that appeared in Bekoff's column Animal Emotions in Psychology Today. He contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

This week has once again been a rich one for learning more about the fascinating lives of elephants, those magnificent giants with legendary memories, thick skins and tender hearts. A recent book called "Behemoth: The History of the Elephant in America," by Montana State University Professor Ronald Tobias, is a great source for information about these iconic mammals. This carefully researched, well written, and easy to read book contains countless facts and stories about the kaleidoscopic history, ranging from tragic to comic, of these magnificent beings — how they have been worshipped, treasured, used and abused in numerous venues.

The first elephant to visit American shores arrived April 13, 1796, on a boat called America captained by one Jacob Crowninshield. The two-year old female was physically and emotionally traumatized and dazed — she hadn't seen the sun for 120 days and had been violently separated from her mother. She toured the East Coast and apparently enjoyed drinking "all kinds of spirituous liquors." You'll also read about an elephant named Big Mary who was lynched in 1916 in Erwin, Tenn., for killing a man.

Pachyderm politics and the powerful female

Lesley Evans Ogden recently published an up-to-date summary of the behavior and importance of female matriarch elephants in New Scientist magazine in an essay called "Pachyderm politics and the powerful female."

Female elephants lead. As Ogden notes, "It has long been clear that elephant groups rely on their elder stateswomen, but just how important these females are is only gradually becoming apparent. Matriarchs are at the hub of a complex, multilayered social network, and we are now getting insights into the nature of the ties that bind these close-knit groups and the key role that wise old leaders play in enhancing the survival of their members. Matriarchs carry with them a treasure trove of crucial information. They have a unique influence over group decision-making. And, like our own leaders, the most successful may even possess certain personality traits."

Much of what she writes stems from more than four decades of detailed research on a relatively undisturbed population of elephants living in the Amboseli National Parkin southern Kenya. Ogden quotes renowned scientist Cynthia Moss, who founded the Amboseli Elephant Research Project (AERP) in 1972 and continues to lead the research, as follows: "Our studies show how absolutely crucial matriarchs are to the well-being and success of the family."

The elephants in Amboseli exhibit a complex and dynamic fluid, fission-fusion society in which group membership changes over time as individuals come together (fusion) and then part (fission). These sorts of societies are rarely observed in animals other than humans or non-human primates. And, the oldest and most experienced females take the lead. Ms. Ogden notes, "[G]roup size is constantly changing, responding to the seasons, the availability of food and water, and the threat from predators. An adult female elephant might start the day feeding with 12 to 15 individuals, be part of a group of 25 by mid-morning, and 100 at midday, then go back to a family of 12 in the afternoon, and finally settle for the night with just her dependent offspring." And, other research in Proceedings of the Royal Society B has shown that "the more closely related individuals are, the more time they tend to spend with one another."

Furthermore, there appears to be a survival advantage for groups led by older matriarchs. Vicki Fishlock, a resident scientist with the AERP notes, "Good matriarch decisions balance the needs of the group, avoiding unnecessary travel while remembering when and where good resources are available. ... The matriarch has a very strong influence on what everybody does." Indeed, "Studies in Amboseli have revealed that families with older, larger matriarchs range over larger areas during droughts, apparently because these females better remember the location of rare food and water resources." A number of different studies have shown that groups benefit from the presence of "wise old matriarchs" and that "elephants defer to the knowledge of their elders, and that matriarchs call the shots when it comes to deciding what anti-predator strategy to adopt" according to elephant expert Karen McComb at the UK's University of Sussex.

Stranger danger

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As Ogden states, "Older matriarchs also seem to be better at judging 'stranger danger' from other elephants. At Amboseli, each family group encounters some 25 other families in the course of the year, representing about 175 other adult females. Encounters with less familiar groups can be antagonistic, and if a family anticipates possible harassment it assumes a defensive formation called bunching." McComb tested whether a matriarch's age influenced her ability to discriminate between contact calls. They discovered that because older matriarchs have a better memory for various elephant voices families who were led by them were less reactive to vocalizations by less familiar elephants.

Cynthia Moss and her colleagues have also identified 26 different personality types among elephants that form four personality dimensions, namely, "playfulness, gentleness, constancy and leadership." The matriarch in one Amboseli group scored highly on leadership.

And, Ogden concludes, "We do not yet know the full extent of the damage caused by the killing of wise old matriarchs. Given that they are instrumental in solving the everyday problems of keeping their groups fed, watered, safe and reproducing, their entire social network will feel the loss. But work by [Colorado State University's George] Wittemyer and [Iain] Douglas-Hamilton [founder of Save the Elephants] on heavily poached elephant populations suggests that despite disruptions to social structure, over the long term, the elephants and their networks are resilient. They can and will recover if poaching pressure can be lifted, but that is a big 'if'."

Matriarchs are great leaders and can help group members solve problems with which they're faced, but humans remain the biggest problems of all and elephants are not very good at dealing with us.

I hope this wonderful essay becomes more broadly available sooner rather than later.

Bekoff's most recent Op-Ed was "2014 Begins with Oriented Animal Pooping and Pufferfish Highs" This article was adapted from "Elephant Matriarchs, Untethered Brains, and Nature is Good" in Psychology Today. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.