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BEHAVIOUR  - Editorial Comment

Editorial Comment (Editorial Overview Text Replicated on Overall Species page - Loxodonta africana - African Elephant)

Elephants have a strong mother-calf bond. Immediately after birth the mother assists the calf to stand, and may bend her front legs to assist it to reach her nipples to suckle. In the first few months the mother closely watches her calf, is very protective and assists it whenever necessary; they also administer discipline as required e.g. by slapping with the trunk. On rare occasions a mother has been seen carrying her calf (and in one case carrying a dead, decomposing calf). Later, the mother is less attentive, but allomothers - aunts or older sisters - assist in caring. Parental care may be given to some extent until the early teens. Females may allow another calf from their family group to suckle, however reports vary regarding whether or not an orphaned calf will be adopted by another female.

Further information on reproduction is provided in African Elephant Loxodonta africana - Life Stages (Literature Reports)

(References are available in detailed literature reports below)

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Parental Behaviour

Source Information
  • Carrying of the calf by the mother has been recorded only rarely in African elephants. (B384.5.w5)
  • The cow elephant makes soft noises to her calf. (B384.5.w5)
  • There is a very strong bond between the mother and her calf. Cow elephants have been observed remaining by their dead calf for several days, or carrying a dead, decomposing calf. (B384.5.w5)
  • The mother assists the calf when it tries to stand after birth, using the trunk and a forefoot, and may repeatedly assist when it falls down. (B453.6.w6)
  • The cow is very protective towards her unweaned calf and is usually "aggressively protective". (B453.6.w6)
  • When the new-born calf tries to suckle, if it cannot reach the nipple then its mother may bend her front legs a little. (B453.9.w9)
  • The mother constantly caresses the newborn calf with her trunk. (B453.9.w9)
  • Calves in their first days may be assisted by the mother and other elephants to stand and walk. (B387.w4)
  • The following behaviours are all described for mothers with young calves:
    • The calf is pushed under its mother's belly in the event of danger, and runs under her if on the move. (B453.9.w9)
    • She may help it up steep areas using her trunk under its buttocks. (B453.9.w9)
    • Crossing clear areas in hot weather, the mother pushes the calf underneath into her own shadow. (B453.9.w9)
    • At water, she assists the calf up and down steep or slippery banks, keeps it with her in very shallow water, and gently bathes it, squirting water over it then rubbing with her trunk. (B453.9.w9)
  • During the first six months, mothers keep a close eye on their calves and remains highly aware of its movements for its first year. (B387.w4)
  • Mothers provide intensive care to their calves for their first two years. After this, some care and discipline is provided by other cows also - older sisters and aunts. (B453.9.w9)
  • Young calves are closely watched and helped by their mothers. As the calf gets older the mother gives less attention but assistance is provided by other, young females. (B451.4.w4)
  • In addition to the mother, young females ("allomothers") assist in rearing the calf. This not only improves calf survival but provides the young females with experience for when they have their own calves. (B285.w3)
  • Calves are depend closely on their mothers for about 10 years. (B285.w3)
  • Aunts, cousins and subadult males also provide support and attention to the calf. (B285.w3)
  • Adolescent females may assist with calves, which helps them learn for raising their own calves. (B451.4.w4)
  • From about a year old, although no longer helped by its mother's trunk, calves are still assisted by e.g. a push from behind to get up a bank or out of a mud hole, and are also permitted to pull themselves up a bank by holding onto the tail of their mother, sister or aunt. (B453.9.w9)
  • There is generally another elephant close to the calf at all times. (B384.5.w5)
  • Calves of young mothers have more contact with other elephants than do calves of more experienced females. (B384.5.w5)
  • Calves are disciplined, mainly by their own mother, using pokes, slaps with the trunk, shoves and threats. (B384.5.w5)
  • Aunties or allomothers are generally related to the calf and its mother. They have relatively little interaction with a calf when it is under two years old and more when it is two to four years old. (B384.5.w5)
  • Parental care is given until at least the early teens. (B453.6.w6)
  • Within the family unit, parental responsibility for the calves is shared. (B453.6.w6)
  • Calves which stray more than five metres from their mother may bellow for help, as do calves which are stuck in mud or a hole. Both mothers and allomothers rush to help. (B396.4.w4)
  • Interaction between the cow elephant and her calf is varied: "The calves move up close to their own mother periodically to touch trunks, taste what mother is eating, receive a disciplinary whack with the mother's trunk or a helping hand over a fallen log or up a steep bank." (B453.9.w9)
  • Playing calves may be disciplined by an adult, using a whack across the back or buttocks. (B453.9.w9)
  • Even relatively young elephants may assist one another: in one incident, when a bull was shot and the herd fled, a female of about seven or eight years old assisted a six-month old calf, which had been unable to get up a bank alone and had been left behind, then both followed a brother of about ten years old, who searched for the best route for them. (B453.9.w9)
  • While African elephant cows have not been seen actually assisting their calves to swim, the calf is placed on the upstream side when swimming across rivers. (B453.9.w9)
  • Females in a group are frequently reported to allow suckling of one another's calves. (B451.4.w4)
  • A study at Amboseli found that suckling of another female made up only 4% of observations, and most of those were on nulliparous females; most attempts to suckle from other lactating cows were quickly terminated. (B396.4.w4)
  • Females may sometimes allow a calf to suckle alongside their own calf but will not adopt an orphaned calf. (B384.5.w5)
  • If one elephant cow dies, another lactating cow "will adopt the orphaned calf without any hesitation." (B453.6.w6)
  • A female at Manyara was observed looking after her mother's calf as well as her own, and letting both suckle in turn, after her mother had died (presumed poached). (B462.Post.w19)
  • Fostering of an orphaned elephant calf into another group has met with mixed success:
    • One calf was accepted by a cow with a newborn calf, and was seen live and well more than a week after the adoption. (B451.4.w4)
    • One calf was accepted but not suckled, therefore weakened and died. (B451.4.w4)
    • One calf was totally rejected. (B451.4.w4)
  • Mothers may vary in their tolerance for suckling by older calves. (B387.w4)
  • Younger mothers may be more maternal than older mothers, and may be more likely to suckle other calves and even to accept orphans. (B387.w4)

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Authors & Referees

Authors Dr Debra Bourne MA VetMB PhD MRCVS (V.w5)
Referee Susan K. Mikota DVM (V.w72)

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