Elephants live in large or small herds that can range in size from less than a dozen to over 100 members. Females and their young form the nucleus of a herd, which is usually led by a senior matriarch. The matriarch is usually of about 30 or 40 years of age. She makes decision on where the elephants eat and wallow. Herds without a matriarch do not function well.

A family unit consists of related females. Males are tolerated until the reach puberty, usually when they are between ten and fifteen years old, then driven from the group. At that point males become independent of the herd and wander about on their own or with perhaps another male or form small male groups. Males return periodically to the herd beginning around age of 20 to mate. Elderly bulls "don't bred, they just fight” and often die prematurely “because they kill each other."

Elephant groups are hierarchal, and elephants are used to taking orders from other elephants. Elephants that defy orders are disciplined by the group and the sometimes act sullen and pout. They also get upset if they wrongfully accused of doing something they didn't do. Peer acceptance is important to them and withholding affection is one they are punished.

Elephant communities collectively raise their young. This frees individual females to collect food and helps the community prosper. Adolescent females usually help the mother raise the calves, increasing their chance of survival and giving them practice for the day when they are mothers.∈

Elephant expert Cynthia Moss told the Los Angeles Times, “Elephants live in very complex societies that are multi-tiered, starting with the family unit that might consist of anything from two to 50 animals, and consists of related females ... and their calves. It's a very stable unit, and the bonds among females are very strong. Certain families have special relationships with certain other families; we call that the bond group. And then there are the clans, which consist of about 10 families. And then there are the sub-populations, which might be 30 families or so. [Source: Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times, July 19, 2010]

Elephant Social Behavior

Elephants have very complex social lives. They support and care for another and communicate information and pass it down from one generation to the next. Individual elephants have distinct personalities. Young bull elephants sometimes attend senior bulls like proteges and a mentor.

Elephants have been observed helping wounded elephants by leaning against them to stop the flow of blood, pinching their wounds close with their trunk, and supporting them with shoulders and trunks. Herds have also been seen cooperating with each other to adopt an infant tormented by hyenas.

Elephants touch each other constantly with their tusks and greet each other with a touch of the trunk to the mouth. They also communicate by nudging one another and poking each other gently with their tusks.

When elephants greet long lost friends they sometimes wrap their trunks around one another, click their tusks, flap their ears, twist and rumple, trumpet and bellow---and sometimes get so excited the defecate and urinate in big pools and emit a clear liquid from between their eyes and ears. Sometimes elephants race towards each other and place their trunks in each other's mouth when they have only been apart for twenty minutes.←

wild herd in India

Elephant Ultrasound Communication

Elephants produce a wide variety of calls, with some individuals having a preference for certain sounds. Some make barking noises like a seal. Others roar and blow raspberries. While others make noses that resemble a gurgling, growling stomach.

Scientists had long wondered why elephants in a herd all raised their ears and stopped in their tracks even though no sound was heard; how herds miles apart from one another could forage an area in an organized fashion; why elephants a mile apart turned at the same time; and how members of a heard who were scattered in direction miles apart could all arrive at a water hole at the same time.

In the 1990s, scientists discovered an explanation for these behaviors: that elephants communicate on frequency sound level, called infra sound, that is below the range of human hearing. The advantage of infra sound is that carries over long distances and passes relatively undisturbed through forests and grasslands

Katherine Payne, the scientist who discovered this phenomena, first noticed something was up when she observed "palpable throbbing in the air like distant thunder" when she saw some Asian elephants at a zoo in Portland, Oregon.

Most of the research has on infra sound has been done with African elephants but its believed that some of the same traits also apply to Asian elephants. Asian elephants give off a barely audible low-frequency sound like "a distant diesel generator," for example, to express fear about a nearly rhino.

wild herd in Sri Lanka

Ultrasound Calls

Elephants produce the infra sound calls with large vocal chords, wide nasal tubes, and specially-shaped bones in their throats. Joyce Poole, a wildlife biologist who spent 14 years in Ambosli studying elephants, has identified more than 30 different calls, each identified with a different behavior. She can attract elephants by imitating their rumbling call.

To attract males estrous females emit low frequency rumbles that can bring in males from miles around. To check if it indeed the sounds that attarcted them and not something else, scientists played a tape of an estrous female from a loudspeaker a mile away from two bulls who just arrived at a water hole. Without even taking a drink---almost unheard of---they started walking in the direction of sound and passed the loudspeaker and kept on walking.╔

Among the strongest ultrasound recorded are those emitted by females leaping to the rescue of a distressed baby calf.╔

Elephants and Tools

Asian elephants sometimes use branches as flyswatters. One study of elephants used to carry tourist in Nepal found that those that used the flyswatters had 40 percent less biting insects on them. The elephants used swatters more in hot temperatures when the number of insects rose and modified the length and size of branches to reach specific places.


Musth is a highly aggressive even psychotic state of heightened sexuality and aggression that males elephants go through every 3 to 6 months. Both African and Asian elephant males experience it. Violence attributed to rogue elephants is usually the work of males in musth. Many elephant attacks on humans are by males in musth.

Musth (derived from the Hindi word for intoxicated) can drive normally placid males into a frenzy and drive bulls to charge across the plain and lock tusks with other males to win females in estrus. Musth usually lasts only for a few days and is caused by a gland located about halfway between the animals' eye and ear. This glands swells during musth and produces a strong-smelling, sticky, dark liquid that dribbles and even flows from the elephant’s head, staining the lower part of its face.

Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “`A male entering the hormonal state of musth is supposed to experience a kind of Popeye effect---the equivalent of downing a can of spinach---that trumps established dominance patterns. Not even an alpha male would risk challenging a bull elephant with a heightened level of testosterone. An elephant in musth is looking for a mate with such singularity of purpose that he hardly takes the time to eat or drink. He engages in exaggerated displays of aggressiveness such as curling the trunk across the brow with ears waving---presumably to facilitate the wafting of a sticky, musthy secretion from temporal glands above the cheek, just behind the eye---while excreting urine, sometimes to the point of gushing. The message is the elephant equivalent of “don’t even think about messing with me “cause I’m so crazy-mad that I’ll tear your head off.” Other bulls seem to understand this body language quite well. [Source: Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell, Smithsonian magazine, November 2010]

Male Elephant Behavior

Describing a domesticated Asian elephant during feeding time, Douglas H. Chadwick wrote in National Geographic, “Looming overhead...Boon Num crunches bushels of pineapple leaves from a nearby plantation. He pauses to break off a short stick. Gripping it like a pencil in his trunk, he guides this simple tool to a hard-to-reach spot behind one foreleg and gives it a thorough scratching. The intensity that sometimes flickers in his brown eyes melts away.” [Source: Douglas H. Chadwick, National Geographic, October 2005]

Elephants have been observed throwing sticks at rhinos. Joshua, an elephant at Amboseli National Park, plays catch with humans by throwing buffalo chip back and forth with them. Sometimes he will even play sneaky tricks, for example, throw the chip back when you are not looking and hit you in the head.←

African elephants in desert areas dig hole sin dry river beds with their trunks and forelegs. They also dig their own mud holes.

Female Elephant Behavior

Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Female elephants live much of their lives apart from males, in family groups led by a matriarch. A mother, grandmother and maybe even a great-grandmother live together with daughters, nieces, granddaughters and their offspring---on average, about 15 individuals. Young males leave the group when they are between 12 and 15 years old; the females stay together as long as they live, which can be up to 70 years. The matriarch, usually the oldest in the group, makes decisions about where and when to move and rest, on both a daily and seasonal basis. [Source: Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell, Smithsonian magazine, November 2010]

Elephant Musth

Elephant expert Cynthia Moss told the Los Angeles Times, “One of the more interesting things we've learned is that males live a totally different life, almost as if they were a different species. They leave the family when they are about 14 years old, shortly after reaching sexual maturity, and then they have a long time before they can compete for mating with females. They go off and spend time with other young males until they grow up some more. A 14-year-old male will be less than half the size of an adult male. So he just bides his time for about 15 years, then he starts being sexually active. [Source: Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times, July 19, 2010]

Another of our findings involves this phenomenon known as musth, which the people working with Asian elephants always knew about but thought was a disease or some unfortunate condition with no relevance to anything. But our studies showed that musth also occurs in African elephants and that it is a very important part of their reproductive strategy. (When a male goes into musth), it's a complete Jekyll and Hyde transformation. He goes from being a nice placid bull, starts secreting from the glands on the side of his face and starts dribbling urine, which has a very strong smell. He carries his whole body a different way, carries his head high and his chin tucked in, and has a special musth walk and musth vocalization, and he is very, very aggressive. And our studies show that his testosterone levels are four to 10 times (higher) when he is in musth as when he is not in musth. The main usage of musth for a bull is to gain dominance over other bulls so that, if he does find a receptive female, he can mate.

On male African elephant sCaitlin O'Connell-Rodwell wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Male elephants have a reputation as loners. But in Amboseli National Park in Kenya, where the longest-running studies on male elephants have been conducted, bulls have been observed to have a best friend with whom they associate for years. Another study, in Botswana, found that younger males seek out older males and learn social behaviors from them. In my previous field seasons at Mushara, I’d noticed that males had not just one close buddy but several, and that these large groups of males of mixed ages persisted for many years. Of the 150 bulls that we were monitoring, the group I was particularly interested in, which I called the “boys’ club,” comprised up to 15 individuals---a dominant bull and his entourage. Bulls of all ages appeared remarkably close, physically demonstrating their friendship. [Source: Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell, Smithsonian magazine, November 2010]

“Dominance among female elephants means leading. The matriarch decides where the group should go and when. Dominance in bulls has been thought to be different, a temporary measure of who could stay on top of the heap, who could physically overpower the other members of the group and mate with the most females. It isn’t about caring whether the group sticks together. But dominance seemed to mean something more complicated to these bulls. I began to wonder whether I was witnessing not just dominance but something that might be called leadership. Greg certainly appeared to be rounding up the group and leading his bulls to another carefully selected venue. [Ibid]

Elephant Mating

The penis of adult African bull elephant can reach lengths of four feet and weigh 60 pounds. That of an Asian elephant is somewhat smaller. The reproductive canal of an African elephant female is over eight feet long.

Female elephants are only fertile two or three days during every four month estrus cycle. Males are only sexually active for short time when they are in musth. Often times the cycles of male and females don't coincide.

Bull elephants in musth actively search for females. They make regular visit to the female groups to see of they in estrus. Rutting males will use their trunk to feel the female's vulva and inspect their urine to determine if they are receptive. Males often flirts with the females by offering them food and squirting water on their back.

If a female is receptive a male may chase her around a bit but in the end they two copulae with little foreplay or resistance. The male mounts the female from the rear. To achieve full penetration he has to stand almost vertically. After the sex is completed the pair wrap their trunks around one another and swish, swish their tails in unison.

On the mating schedule of African elephants, Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Estrous cycles are spaced from four to six years apart. Because of this long interval, relatively few female elephants are ovulating in any one season. Females are thought to advertise estrus through hormones secreted in their urine as well as through the repetition of a vocalization called an estrus rumble. Musth bulls also have a particular rumble that advertises their status to estrus females. [Source: Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell, Smithsonian magazine, November 2010]

“Only a few bulls go into musth at any one time. The prevailing theory is that this staggering of bulls’ musth allows lower-ranking males to gain a temporary advantage over higher-ranking ones by becoming so agitated that dominant bulls won’t want to take them on, even in the presence of a female ready to mate. This mechanism allows more males to mate, rather than just the don, which makes the population more genetically diverse. [Ibid]

“Although females do not go into estrus at the same time, more of them tend to become fertile at the end of the rainy season, which allows them to give birth in the middle of another rainy season, when more food is available. Long-term studies in Amboseli indicate that dominant bulls tend to come into musth when a greater number of females are in estrus, and they maintain their musth longer than younger, less dominant bulls. But this was the dry season, and Greg exhibited no signs of musth. [Ibid]

Male Elephants and Sex

After copulation the male African elephant stays near the female, guarding her, while she emits deep, low-frequency, rumbling noises that can be heard five miles away. If a sexually-active male hears the sound he immediately begin making tracks in the direction of the female. Sometimes males arrive from quite far away.

Males can become so lovesick they stop eating. Females tend be more rational. They are often very choosy about who they pick for mate, often waiting four years before they pick a partner.

If the new-arriving male is smaller than the male guarding the female, the new arrival will back off. If the new-arriving male is larger than the guarding male, the guarding male is driven off If the two elephants are about the same size and strength they may fight.

Ultimately a dominate male guards the female. He mates with the female every few hours until the period of estrus ends. Often many males come around and many copulations take place but the egg is usually not released and conception does not take place until the end of the female receptive period when largest male around is guarding her.

Male Elephants Fights

Fights take place when a challenger challenges the male guarding the female. Before a fight the elephants often kick up a lot of dust. The winner of one battle may find himself defeated by another male who eventually mate with the female. The battles are often over in a minute after one bull, usually the oldest, has asserted itself as the strongest and most powerful. Some of the fights last several hours if the bulls are more evenly matched.

Describing a fight between African elephant males named Kevin and Greg, Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “After a retreat of about 50 yards, Kevin squared off to face his assailant. Greg puffed himself up and kicked dust in all directions. He lifted his head even higher and made a full frontal attack. Two mighty heads collided in a dusty clash. Tusks met in an explosive crack, with trunks tucked under bellies to stay clear of the mighty blows. Greg held his ears out to the sides, with the top and bottom portions folded backward and the middle protruding---an extremely aggressive posture. And using the full weight of his body, he raised his head again and slammed Kevin with his tusks. Dust flew, with Kevin in full retreat. [Source: Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell, Smithsonian magazine, November 2010]

“I couldn’t believe it---a high-ranking bull in musth was getting his hide kicked. A musth bull was thought to rise to the top of the hierarchy and remain there until his testosterone levels returned to normal, perhaps as long as several months. What was going on? But just when I thought Greg had won, Kevin dug in. With their heads only inches apart, the two bulls locked eyes and squared up again, muscles taut.There were false starts, head thrusts from inches away and all manner of insults cast through foot tosses, stiff trunks and arched backs. These two seemed equally matched, and for a half-hour the fight was a stalemate. [Ibid]

“Then Kevin lowered his head. Greg seized the moment. He dragged his own trunk on the ground and stamped purposefully forward, lunging at Kevin until the lesser bull was finally able to maneuver behind a concrete bunker we use for ground-level observations. Feet stamping in a sideways dance, thrusting their jaws out at each other, the two bulls faced each other across the bunker. Greg tossed his trunk across the nine-foot divide in what appeared to be frustration. At last he was able to break the standoff, catching Kevin in a sideways attack and getting him out in the open. Kevin retreated a few paces, then turned and walked out of the clearing, defeated. [Ibid]

Pregnant Elephants and Baby Elephants

Elephants have the longest gestation period of any animal. The gestation period of the Asian elephant is around 645 days. The longest on record is 760 days. Females reach sexual maturity around age 13. They generally give birth once every four years. Females reach menopause around the age of 55. On average a female gives birth to four calves in a lifetime. In the wild, 50-year-old female elephants still give birth to calves.

Baby elephants can walk only a half hour after they are born. They generally nurse for two years. They consume about six gallons of milk a day until they are weaned at the age of approximately 4½ years. Young elephants become traumatized when their mothers are killed by poachers or they are separated from their mothers for circus acts. The chances of an orphaned baby elephant surviving on its own are slim. In the wild, calves don't venture from their mothers' side until the age of 5 or 6, Phyllis Lee of the University of Stirling in Scotland, a specialist in baby animal behavior, told the Washington Post.

Elephant calves use their trunks to grab on to their mother’s tail. They play by making mock charges pushing one another, gamboling and using their trunks to wrestle. Young elephant sometimes even play hide and seek in the tall grass and playfully ambush buffalo calves When juvenile elephants wrestle with bigger ones. The older elephants often drop to their knees to make the contest more fair.←

Mourning Elephants

Elephants have been observed mourning their dead. Family members may hang around the body of a deceased elephant for days, and cover their bodies with branches and dirt. When a baby elephant dies its mother will sometimes try for hours to rouse it. Some elephants have been seen carrying the bones of fallen comrades and a few scientist claim that elephants can die of grief.←

When a bull is dying other bulls sometimes stand on him and try to mate with him while he is still clinging to life. After he has died, when the body is still warm, other bulls try to lift it, breaking tusks in the processes. Once, months after an old bull died, another bull fond the site and picked up a tusk and caressed it.

Derek and Beverly Joubert witnessed an elephant wake: an entire herd paraded past a fallen comrade, they said, taking turns to gently prod and sniff it. No noise is made, the event is as solemn as group walking past an open casket at a funeral.←

No elephant graveyards, however, have ever been discovered. On occasion they have even been observed "burying" dead antelopes or humans. Elephant graveyard myth may come from the fact that many elephants die around water holes.

Elephant Empathy

“ The question of whether intelligent mammals such as elephants display empathy and similar emotional reactions to those of people is much debated in zoological circles. In a paper published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science by Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a Kenyan zoologist, and his colleagues. Mr Douglas-Hamilton's researchers were able to observe the reaction of other elephants to the death of Eleanor, the matriarch of a group called the First Ladies. A picture shows an elephant from a neighbouring group pulling at her body. On several occasions before she died, other elephants had tried to help her stand up. Such behaviour is in contrast to that shown by most animals to sick or dead individuals. They just ignore them. [Source: The Economist, July 24, 2006.

Parade magazine reported that at the Indianapolis zoo, a female elephant named Sophi watched her keepers push a heavy cart across the yard after cleaning up her enclosure. The elephant had never received any training to do such chores, but suddenly she started to push too. Some people at the zoo felt this was an example of animal empathy.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2012

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