Research highlight

Animal behaviour: Leading the young: older male elephants are up to the tusk

Scientific Reports

September 4, 2020

Older male elephants may have important roles to play as experienced leaders to younger males when navigating unknown or risky environments, according to a study published in Scientific Reports.

In long-lived species, such as elephants and whales, older individuals often respond more appropriately to complex, changing environments, which may benefit younger group members. However, research in this area has tended to focus on females.

Connie Allen and colleagues investigated grouping behaviour and patterns of leadership in 1,264 male African savannah elephants travelling on elephant pathways to and from the Boteti River in the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park (MPNP), Botswana.

The authors found that lone elephants accounted for 20.8% (263 elephants) of sightings on elephant pathways. Adolescent males travelled alone significantly less often than expected, unlike mature adult males who were more likely to travel alone than expected, which may suggest that lone travel is riskier for younger, newly independent and less experienced individuals. Older adults were significantly more likely to travel at the front of groups of males, suggesting that mature adult bulls act as repositories for ecological knowledge and that they may be important leaders during collective movement in all-male groups of African savannah elephants.

Old males being considered reproductively redundant is commonly used as an argument to support the legal trophy hunting of old males, according to the authors who suggest that such selective harvesting of older males could disrupt the wider bull society and the inter-generational flow of accumulated ecological knowledge.

doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-70682-y

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