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LIFE STAGES - Editorial Comment

Editorial Comment (Editorial Overview Text Replicated on Overall Species page - Asian Elephant - Elephas maximus)

BREEDING SEASON: In general there appears to be no set breeding season, however in an area of Sri Lanka with relatively low rainfall most mating occurs in the dry season (June to September), with births then occurring in the October to January rainy season.

OESTRUS/OVULATION: Asian elephants are polyoestrous; the oestrus cycle is about 14 to 16 weeks long with oestrus lasting about four days (range two to eight days). Recent studies on hormone levels have shown that there are two LH peaks, three weeks apart, the second of which is followed by ovulation.

GESTATION/PREGNANCY: Pregnancy is generally considered to last about 22 months, with some individual variation. Data for elephants in European zoos and circuses suggested a gestation length of about 21.5 months. Exceptionally, gestations of as short as 17 months (resulting in a very weak calf) or as long as 24 months have been reported.

PARTURITION/BIRTH: Labour is generally short, with perhaps an hour from the first visible contractions to the birth of the calf. Difficult parturitions do occur and if the calving is not successful then the cow elephant may die. Births may occur at any time of year but in areas of low rainfall births may occur more commonly during the rainy season.

NEONATAL/DEVELOPMENT:

  • Elephant calves are on their feet, walking and suckling soon after birth. Calves may be on their feet as soon as five or ten minutes after birth, although other authorities suggest 20 to 30 or even 40 minutes as being usual. It may take a little while after the calf fist stands before it is able to remain on its feet, walk, and reach its mother's nipples to suckle. Suckling generally occurs within about an hour but may not occur until as late as four hours after birth with an inexperienced mother. 
  • Calves receiving adequate nutrition may grow 2.0 - 3.0 cm a month; in hand-reared calves the growth rate may be slower initially but after weaning the growth rate of calves is probably higher in captivity than in the wild, due to better nutrition and reduced parasitism. 
  • The first molar appears by six weeks old and the second molars come into wear at about two years old.
  • Calves suckle with their mouth, not the trunk. They are totally dependant on milk for the first three months, suckling about every 60 - 90 minutes, then start to eat grass and later also browse, with the frequency of suckling decreasing. They continue to suckle to eighteen months, two years old or older; they may suckle even after the next calf is born.
  • Calves are able to follow their mother during her normal activities within two or three days of birth and remain very close for the first three months. Later they play with other calves. 

LITTER SIZE: There is usually one calf but there a number of records of twins; it has been suggested that twins may occur in about 1% of births.

TIME BETWEEN LITTERS / LITTERS PER YEAR: In favourable conditions calves may be born at intervals of 2.5 to three or four years. Longer inter-calf intervals, up to about 6.5 years may occur.

LACTATION / MILK PRODUCTION:  Lactation continues until shortly before the birth of the next calf; the mammary glands develop visibly about seven weeks before calving. Milk composition varies over the period of lactation, fat content varying from 0.63 - 9.0%, protein from 1.9 - 3.0% and carbohydrates from 4.0 - 8.0 %.

SEXUAL MATURITY: Sexual maturity may be reached in cows as young as nine years old, and is usually later, in the mid to late teens, although a female in captivity was recorded conceiving at seven, with the calf born when the cow was only nine years and one month old. Males may also reach sexual maturity by nine years of age although it is probably usually later, again in the mid teens or later; reaching a condition of sexual dominance required for males to mate successfully is likely not to occur until the bull is at least 20 - 25 years old, unless the population has been depleted of older bulls.

MALE SEASONAL VARIATION: [For a discussion of musth see Asian Elephant Elephas maximus - Sexual Behaviour (Literature Reports)]

LONGEVITY / MORTALITY: The potential life span of the Asian elephant in the wild is perhaps 65 years, although about 50 years may be usual. In captivity a lifespan of 75 or 80 years might be possible. Causes of death in elephants include killing by humans, gastrointestinal tract disorders, pulmonary and respiratory disorders, miscarriage, starvation of old elephants after the last teeth have worn down, accidental falls from steep slopes, injuries from bull fights and occasionally bacterial diseases such as anthrax. The main cause of death in adult elephants is shooting.

(References are available in detailed literature reports below)

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Breeding Season

Source Information SUMMARY: In general there appears to be no set breeding season, however in an area of Sri Lanka with relatively low rainfall most mating occurs in the dry season (June to September), with births then occurring in the October to January rainy season.
  • In general there is no breeding season; females may come into oestrus at any time of the year. (B147)
  • In a three-year study of two populations in southeastern Ceylon [Sri Lanka], 1967 to 1969, it was not possible to state whether there was any seasonality to mating. (J325.125.w1)
  • In Sri Lanka, in an area with relatively low rainfall, mating appears to occur mainly in the dry season, June to September, with births then occurring during the rainy season, October to January. (B147)
  • In a population in southern India, in an area with rainfall spread over eight months of the ear, there was no evidence for seasonal breeding. (B386.11.w11)

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Oestrus / Ovulation

Source Information SUMMARY: Asian elephants are polyoestrous; the oestrus cycle is about 14 to 16 weeks long with oestrus lasting about four days (range two to eight days). Recent studies on hormone levels have shown that there are two LH peaks, three weeks apart, the second of which is followed by ovulation.
  • Elephas females are polyoestrous. (B147)
  • Data from Sri Lanka indicates an oestrus cycle averaging 22 days and the duration of oestrus to be four days. (B147)
  • Based on data from hormone profiles in several cows, it has been shown that the oestrus cycle has a duration of about 14 to 16 weeks. (B396.3.w3)
    • The main progestins secreted by the corpus luteum of African elephants have been shown to be 5α-prenane-3,20-dione (5α-DHP) and 3α-hydroxy-5α-pregnan-20-one (5α-P-3α-OH). In Asian elephants, 17α-hydroxyprogesterone can be measured clearly in blood and pregnanetrol in urine. (B396.3.w3)
    • It appears that there are perhaps five waves of follicular growth, about three weeks apart, with the obvious progestin cycle of 14-16 weeks representing the culmination of one of these ovulation waves, and formation of a functional corpus luteum. (B396.3.w3)
    • There appear to be two LH surges within the 14-16 week cycle, about three weeks apart and with the second peak being associated with increased progestin levels. (B396.3.w3)
    • Elevated FSH levels at the start of the non-luteal phase initiate two waves of follicular development, each with a distinct LH peak; while the follicles of the first wave never ovulate but regress and form corpora lutea (which secrete hormones later in the cycle), the second wave of follicular development results in one large follicle which ovulates after the second surge in LH. Following ovulation, progestin levels rise as the CL matures while FSH rises gradually to peak at the end of the luteal phase. (B396.3.w3)
  • The oestrous cycle of elephants in 13 - 17 weeks long, including a luteal phase of 8 - 10 weeks and a follicular phase of 4 - 7 weeks. (J23.40.w1)
  • Oestrus last from two to eight days in Asian elephants. (B384.5.w5)
  • Oestrus cycles have been recorded as 18 to 27 days long in Asian elephants. (B384.5.w5)
  • A study of six mature female Asian elephants, based on serum progesterone concentrations and LH levels, showed that the cycle averaged 16.3 +/- 0.4 weeks (based on data for 15 cycles in six animals) with the luteal phase lasting 10.5 +/- 0.3 weeks and the interluteal (follicular) phase 5.1 +/- 0.4 weeks. Concentrations of oestrodiol were very variable. Serum progesterone was low (30 - 70 pg/mL during the six weeks of the follicular phase then increased in the week after ovulation, to 215 pg/mL, reached peak concentrations of 400 - 700 pg/mL in weeks four to seven then gradually reduced over five to six weeks to under 100 pg/mL. (J371.38.w1)
  • In a single female Asian elephant, serum progesterone concentrations indicated an oestrous cycle of 16.1 +/- 2.1 weeks (mean +/- S); based on urinary total oestrogens it was 16.6 +/- 1.6 weeks. (J54.9.w2)
  • In a study following 14 ovarian cycles in four Asian elephants, the oestrous cycle averaged 31.2 +/- 0.7 weeks, with the active luteal phase lasting 9.8 +/- 0.7 weeks. In 11 of the cycles, an LH surge was noted immediately before or during the rise in progesterone levels, and in eight cycles it was noted that there was a second LH urge 11 - 19 days after the first LH surge was observed. Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and inhibin levels also showed a 12 - 14 week cycle; FSH levels were lowest during the late follicular and early luteal phases, increasing to peak levels in the late stages of the luteal phase, while inhibin levels were inversely related to FSH levels. (J2.22.w2)
  • Analysis of progesterone and luteinizing hormone concentrations in serum of two female Asian elephants found the ovarian cycle to average 14.7 +/- 0.5 weeks (based on data for 10 cycles), with the active luteal phase lasting 10.6 +/- 0.6 weeks (range 9 - 13 weeks) and the interluteal phase 4.2 +/- 0.5 weeks. Average progesterone concentrations during the luteal phase were 456 +/- 23 pg/mL. (J371.38.w1)
  • Serum follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) concentrations are highest at the end of the luteal phase of the oestrous cycle in the elephant then decline progressively during the non-luteal (follicular) phase. (J54.19.w2)
  • A study based on daily urine and blood samples from three cycling female Asian elephants showed two surges in LH, the anovulatory LH surge occurring 21 days before the ovulatory LH surge; there was no significant difference between the magnitudes of the two LH surges. Urinary concentrations of oestrogen at baseline (30 - 40 days before the ovulatory LH peak) averaged 15.6 +/- 5.7 ng/mg Cr (per mg creatinine), with a significant (P <0.05) increase starting about five days prior to each LH surge, with mean peak concentrations one day before each LH surge. Urinary concentrations of progestins remained low through the follicular phase until about two to three days before the ovulatory LH surge, then increased and remained high throughout the luteal phase. (J54.22.w1)
  • In the cycling Asian elephant serial blood sampling has shown the following pattern of hormones: (J386.136.w1)
    • There are two LH peaks, about three weeks apart, with ovulation induced by the second LH peak. Peak LH levels reached 14.2 +/- 2.1 ng/mL serum in this study. (J386.136.w1)
    • FSH secretion shows a cyclic pattern, with highest concentrations at the start of the non-luteal phase, declining to reach the lowest concentration within four days before the second LH surge, remaining low immediately after the second LH surge, then increasing during the luteal phase. (J386.136.w1)
    • Progestins are low during the follicular phase and increase following ovulation. (J386.136.w1)
    • Prolactin levels remain stable at low levels throughout the cycle. (J386.136.w1)
    • Oestradiol levels varied across the cycle, with average levels under 25 pg/mL, but spikes up to 65 pg/mL; in some individuals, increases in oestradiol were measured preceding the LH surges, but this was not detected consistently. (J386.136.w1)
    • There were no differences in TSH, free T3, free T4, total T3, total T4 or cortisol related to the stage of the oestrus cycle. (J386.136.w1)
  • There are two LH surges, with the second being followed by ovulation. (J371.61.w1)
  • In a three-year study of three cycling females, during the non-luteal phase of the oestrous cycle there were two LH peaks, about three weeks apart (20.8 +/- 0.5 days) Ovulation occurs after the second LH peak. Concentrations of FSH in serum were highest at the start of the nonluteal phase then declined to lowest concentrations within four days of the second, ovulatory, LH surge, remaining low until after the second LH surge then increasing again during the luteal phase of the cycle. During the non-luteal phase, serum inhibin concentrations were negatively correlated with FSH concentrations. No patterns were evident in the fluctuating prolactin and oestrodiol concentrations. (J371.61.w1)

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Mating / Gestation / Pregnancy

Source Information SUMMARY: Gestation is generally considered to last about 22 months, with some individual variation. Data for elephants in European zoos and circuses suggested a gestation length of about 21.5 months. Exceptionally, gestations of as short as 17 months (resulting in a very weak calf) or as long as 24 months have been reported.
  • Gestation 615 to 668 days. (B285.w3)
  • Data from captive elephants in European zoos and circuses indicated for male calves an average gestation of 644 days (range 615 to 668 days) and for female calves an average gestation of 648 days (range 628 to 668 days). (B147)
  • Gestation in Asian elephants is about 650 days. (B384.5.w5)
  • Asian elephants have a mean gestation length of 20 to 22 months. (B386.11.w11)
  • Gestation may vary from as exceptionally short as 17 months (the newborn calf was noted to be very weak) to as long as 24 moths. other instances of 19, 21.5, 22 and 22 months, and 583 and 680 days (19.4 and 22.6 months). (B212.w11)
  • Gestation is about 22 months, with some variation between individuals. (P502.1.w5)

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Parturition / Birth

Source Information SUMMARY: Labour is generally short, with perhaps an hour from the first visible contractions to the birth of the calf. Difficult parturitions do occur and if the calving is not successful then the cow elephant may die. Births may occur at any time of year but in areas of low rainfall births may occur more commonly during the rainy season.

Parturition:

  • Other females gather round during the birth. "Midwives" may assist in removal of the fetal membranes, and females may also assist the calf to stand for the first time. (B285.w3)
  • A female in captivity calved at an age of at least 62 years. (B147)
  • Calvings have been recorded in captive Asian elephants of as old as 54 years and 62 years. In the wild, two cows with estimated ages of certainly over 50 years had calves of one and three years old with them. (B386.11.w11)
  • Parturition generally involves only a short period of labour. (B212.w11)
  • The head presentation may be usual but hind presentation also occurs. The calf is covered with membranes; the female ruptures the membranes with her foot. (B212.w11)
  • Cows may die during labour if the calf is not successfully expelled. (B212.w11)
  • The female usually eats the placenta. (B212.w11)
  • Calving is generally uneventful with labour completed within an hour after the first contractions are visible. (P502.1.w5)
  • Discharge of cervical mucus may be noted 12 - 24 hours before parturition in many cases. (P502.1.w5)

Seasonality:

  • In general, births may occur at any time of year. (B147)
  • In Sri Lanka, in an area with relatively low rainfall, births appear to occur mainly during the rainy season, October to January. (B147)
  • In a three-year study of two populations in southeastern Ceylon [Sri Lanka], 1967 to 1969, it was not possible to say whether there was any seasonality to births; two newborn calves were seen during the study, in November and January. (J325.125.w1)

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Neonatal Development

Source Information SUMMARY:
  • Elephant calves are on their feet, walking and suckling soon after birth. Calves may be on their feet as soon as five or ten minutes after birth, although other authorities suggest 20 to 30 or even 40 minutes as being usual. It may take a little while after the calf fist stands before it is able to remain on its feet, walk, and reach its mother's nipples to suckle. Suckling generally occurs within about an hour but may not occur until as late as four hours after birth with an inexperienced mother. 
  • Calves receiving adequate nutrition may grow 2.0 - 3.0 cm a month; in hand-reared calves the growth rate may be slower initially but after weaning the growth rate of calves is probably higher in captivity than in the wild, due to better nutrition and reduced parasitism. 
  • The first molar appears by six weeks old and the second molars come into wear at about two years old.
  • Calves suckle with their mouth, not the trunk. They are totally dependant on milk for the first three months, suckling about every 60 - 90 minutes, then start to eat grass and later also browse, with the frequency of suckling decreasing. They continue to suckle to eighteen months, two years old or older; they may suckle even after the next calf is born.
  • Calves are able to follow their mother during her normal activities within two or three days of birth and remain very close for the first three months. Later they play with other calves. 

Birth: 

  • Elephant calves are precocial. They are able to stand soon after birth. (B147)
  • Elephant calves are precocial, in that they are able to stand within minutes to a couple of hours after birth. At this time they still have poor limb coordination, often stumbling and falling, and poor vision, using smell, touch and sound to find its mother. Searching for the teats initially takes place randomly between the front and hind legs. (B396.4.w4)
  • Elephants may be able to stand and remain standing by 30-40 minutes after birth. In one case the calf first stood at 20 minutes and remained on its feet , got to its mother's breasts and suckled ten minutes later. Other calves have been recorded first on their feet as soon as 12 minutes after birth, but unable to remain standing until 37 minutes. (B384.5.w5)
  • Walking has been recorded in a calf "within minutes of birth" but more usually this occurs at about 40 to 60 minutes. (B384.5.w5)
  • Suckling has also been observed not to occur for as long as 3.5 hours after birth for a calf with an elderly mother. (B384.5.w5)
  • With an inexperienced mother, it may be as long as four hours before the calf finds the teats. (B384.5.w5)
  • Calves are generally on their feet within five to ten minutes of birth and are suckling within an hour. (P502.1.w5)
  • Calves may stand about an hour or so after birth and can walk soon after standing. (B212.w11)

Eyes and ears:

  • --

Thermoregulation:

  • --

Growth rate/weight gain:

  • Hand-reared calves grow more slowly than do mother-reared calves. (B10.49.w21)
  • After weaning, elephant calves in captivity may grow faster than wild calves, due to better nutrition and less parasitism. (B10.49.w21)
  • A study on captive-born calves in southern India did not find any difference in growth rates between male and female calves up to the age of two years, although after this time, males grew faster than females. (B396.4.w4)
  • In females, growth slows at about 10 to 12 years old; in males, at 15 years. Full growth is reached at about 17 years of age. (B147)
  • Growth rates reduce with age. (B384.5.w5)
  • Male elephants (African and Asian) at about 20 years old appear to undergo a second growth spurt, for about five years. (B384.5.w5)
  • Calves may grow at about 2.0 - 3.0 cm per month with adequate nutrition. (P502.1.w5)

Tooth development:

  • The first molar cuts the gum when the calf is about six weeks old and all four are in use by the time the calf in 8.5 weeks of age. The second molar comes into wear when the calf is two years old, the third at five years, the fourth at nine or ten years of age, the fifth when the elephant is 20 years old and the sixth tooth comes into use when the animal is 30 to 40 years old. (B384.3.w3)

Feeding, exploration and dispersal:

  • Suckling and weaning
    • Calves suckle with their mouth, not the trunk. They may suckle from another lactating female, not just their own mother. (B147)
    • Calves suckle with the mouth, not the trunk. (B212.w11)
    • About two to ten litres of colostrum may be consumed in the first one or two days. (P502.1.w5)
    • Calves start to eat grass and foliage when several months old. (B147)
    • Calves may continue nursing occasionally for as long as 18 months. (B147)
    • Up to three months of age, the calf is totally dependant on its mother's milk for nutrition. It feeds about every 60 - 90 minutes. (P502.1.w5)
    • Calves are completely nutritionally dependent on their mothers to three months old. Having started to eat vegetation, the calf continues to suckle at the same rate as before to six months old. It still depends on milk as one source of nutrition to two years of age and usually gets significant nutrition from milk to at least three years of age. (B396.4.w4)
      • To about one year of age, elephant calves suckle for two to four minutes per hour - a high rate for an ungulate. (B396.4.w4)
    • Calves which are starting to take solid food often feed alongside their mothers' heads. (J325.125.w1)
    • Elephant calves consume milk as the main part of their diet for about two years, and this continues as part of their diet to three or four years old. (B285.w3)
      • If the mother dies, the calf usually dies; other females will not let it suckle at the expense of nutrition of their own calves. (B285.w3)
    • Calves are weaned at two to three years of age. (B212.w11)
    • In the first three years the calf generally suckles as long as it wants; with older bull calves (e.g. 3.5 to 4.5 years old) the mother may stop the feeding session. (B384.5.w5)
    • Weaning occurs gradually. (B396.4.w4)
    • Nursing generally lasts about five years, with a range of three to eight years, depending on the time to the mother's next calving. Some calves suckle the mother even after the next calf has been born. (B384.5.w5)
    • Small calves have been observed to suckle other cows as well as their own mothers; attempts to suckle from other females occur mainly in calves of up to three months old. (B384.5.w5)
    • In general, an orphaned calf will not be allowed to suckle another female. (B384.5.w5)
  • Feeding and drinking
    • A calf will put the end of its trunk into its mother's mouth and take food from there. It will eat some vegetable material from about six months old. (B285.w3)
    • From three months to six months it may nibble at grass, gradually eating more grass and starting to imitate its mother in browsing vegetation which is within its reach. It may also eat fresh dung of its mother. From six to 12 months, the calf is able to feed on an increasing variety of foods and suckles only about every 120 - 180 minutes. (P502.1.w5)
    • Calves which are starting to take solid food often feed alongside their mothers' heads. (J325.125.w1)
    • Calves learn which food to eat by sampling food types they see eaten by other members of the herd. (B285.w3)
    • From three months, some vegetation is eaten; more after this time, with skill at feeding independently improving and all the basic feeding skills mastered by the time the calf is a year old. (B396.4.w4)
    • Initially, calves drink water using their mouth; sucking water with the trunk starts in the fourth month; only some of the water is successfully transferred to the mouth, but by one year, the calf has fully developed this skill. (B396.4.w4)
  • Movement, exploration and play:
    • The calf can follow its mother by about 48 hours old. (B212.w11)
    • Calves can follow their mothers during their daily activities from a few days old. (B147)
    • In the first week, an elephant calf appears to have little control over its trunk. It may be wriggled rapidly, the calf may fall over it, but it is not useful. Control is better even in the second week and has improved substantially by the time the calf is a month old. (B396.4.w4)
    • By the second week, calves walk better and are even able to run short distances. (B396.4.w4)
    • During the first three months, calves stay close to their mothers all the time. (P502.1.w5)
    • Calves of young mothers have more contact with other elephants than do calves of more experienced females. (B384.5.w5)
    • Older infants often stray from the females while they are approximately stationary, to engage in play. (J325.125.w1)
    • Calves play using head-to-head sparring, trunk wrestling, mounting one another and chasing and rolling on one another. (B384.5.w5)
    • Play is most vigorous and last longest (30 to 50 seconds) in young calves, and is less vigorous in older juveniles. (B384.5.w5)
    • Males may start to move independently by as young as four years old and by seven or eight years old may form a subgroup with other young males, or may temporarily associate with older males. (B147)
    • Asian elephant calves of a few months old have been reported to scramble onto their mothers' shoulders while swimming. (B384.5.w5)
    • Young calves are rarely out of touching-distance of their mother. (B285.w3)
    • Elephant calves play as an important part of their development. This includes for male calves, chasing and sparring head-to-head; females tend to play by running through long grass, chasing birds, throwing sticks and attacking imaginary enemies. Calves of both sexes, particularly when juvenile, play games involving climbing over one another. (B285.w3)

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Litter Size

Source Information SUMMARY: There is usually one calf but there a number of records of twins; it has been suggested that twins may occur in about 1% of births.
  • Usually there is a single calf. (B147, B285.w3)
  • One calf is usual; about 1% of births may involve twins in both African and Asian elephants. There is one record of triplets in a shot elephant [species of elephant not given]. (B384.5.w5)
  • There is usually one calf. (B212.w11)
  • Usually a single calf is born but twins have been recorded on several occasions. (P502.1.w5)

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Time between Litters/ Litters per year

Source Information SUMMARY: In favourable conditions calves may be born at intervals of 2.5 to three or four years. Longer inter-calf intervals, up to about 6.5 years may occur.
  • Elephants may produce a calf as often as every 2.5 to 4.0 years in a favourable habitat, but only every six to eight years in less good habitats. (B147)
  • The average calving interval is about 4.7 years. (B384.5.w5)
  • Females may conceive as early as nine months after calving. (B384.5.w5)
  • In a study of elephants in southern India, using three years' of data, it was estimated that the fertility rate was 0.228 births per female per year (or 0.21 if each year was given equal rating) and the mean calving interval was 4.4 years (4.8 years if data from each year was given equal rating). (B386.11.w11)
  • In a study of elephants in southern India, based on the ages of 14 pairs of sibling calves, the calving interval was estimated to range from three to 6.5 years with a mean of 4.6 years. (B386.11.w11)
  • One study on Asian elephants estimated ages of calves of one cow, from shoulder height, as being seven, three and one years old, giving a mean inter-calf interval of three years with one interval of just two years. (B451.4.w4)
  • Elephants may breed about every two-and-a-half to three years. (B212.w11)

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Lactation / Milk Production

Source Information SUMMARY: Lactation continues until shortly before the birth of the next calf; the mammary glands develop visibly about seven weeks before calving. Milk composition varies over the period of lactation, fat content varying from 0.63 - 9.0%, protein from 1.9 - 3.0% and carbohydrates from 4.0 - 8.0 %.
  • Lactation in elephants continues past the next conception, but ceases prior to the next calving. The breasts develop visibly about seven weeks before calving. (B384.5.w5)
  • Lactation continues until just before the next birth, therefore averaging about five years but with a range of about three to eight years. (B384.5.w5)
  • Elephant milk is "moderate" in its dry matter, fat, protein and carbohydrate contents. (P3.1987.w3)
  • The composition of the milk varies over the lactation period, with the fat content varying from 0.63 - 9.0%, protein from 1.9 - 3.0% and carbohydrates from 4.0 - 8.0 %. (P502.1.w5)

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Sexual Maturity

Source Information SUMMARY: Sexual maturity may be reached in cows as young as nine years old, and is usually later, in the mid to late teens, although a female in captivity was recorded conceiving at seven, with the calf born when the cow was only nine years and one month old. Males may also reach sexual maturity by nine years of age although it is probably usually later, again in the mid teens or later; reaching a condition of sexual dominance required for males to mate successfully is likely not to occur until the bull is at least 20 - 25 years old, unless the population has been depleted of older bulls.
  • Females may reach sexual maturity as young as nine years old. (B147)
  • First parturition occurs at an average of 17 to 18 years of age. (B147)
  • Males may reach sexual maturity as young as nine years old but generally not until 14 or 15 years "and even then they are not capable of the social dominance that usually is required for successful reproductive activity." (B147)
  • Asian elephant cows are estimated to reach sexual maturity at 16 to 18 years. (B384.5.w5)
    • Mating at four years of age and conception at under seven years old has been recorded in a captive Asian elephant cow. (B384.5.w5)
  • Based on age classes calculated based on body size, a three-year study of two populations in southeastern Ceylon [Sri Lanka], 1967 to 1969, found puberty to occur probably between eight and ten years old. It was considered probable that earlier puberty reported in the literature for e.g. zoo-raised individuals, probably reflects differences in nutrition. (J325.125.w1)
  • In a study of elephants in southern India, it was estimated that the mean age of first calving was 17-18 years, with occasional cows under 15 years of age having a calf and some of more than 20 years with neither a calf nor swollen mammary glands. (B386.11.w11)
  • In a study of elephants in southern India, it was not possible to make a precise estimate of the age of sexual maturity, however the following were noted:
    • Males generally became fully independent from their maternal family group by 15 years of age. (B386.11.w11)
    • Some bulls in the 15 to 20 year age group were observed in musth (an indication of sexual maturity). (B386.11.w11)
    • The social hierarchy may prevent bulls of younger than 20-25 year of age from mating, unless older bulls have been abnormally depleted from the population. (B386.11.w11)
  • One study of captive Asian elephants found that females were first mated at 17 - 20 years old. (B451.4.w4)
  • Defining puberty as the onset of the first oestrous cycle (at least one large follicle develops), and sexual maturity as the age at first ovulation (indicated by the presence of at least one corpus luteum), there may be two to four years between puberty and sexual maturity in female elephants. In different elephant (African and Asian) populations, the mean age at sexual maturity may be as young as nine or as old as 22 years; 11 to 14 years is typical for wild female elephants. (B396.3.w3)
  • First parturition, with a nearly full-term calf, has been recorded in a female only nine years and one month old; this was unexpectedly young. (B212.w11)
  • Defining puberty in males as the time viable sperm are first produced, and sexual maturity when a dense mass of sperm is produced, male elephants s may reach puberty at eight to 15 years old, depending on the population, with sexual maturity about two to three years later. (B396.3.w3)

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Male Seasonal Variation

Source Information SUMMARY: [For a discussion of musth see Asian Elephant Elephas maximus - Sexual Behaviour (Literature Reports)]
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Longevity / Mortality

Source Information SUMMARY: The potential life span of the Asian elephant in the wild is perhaps 65 years, although about 50 years may be usual. In captivity a lifespan of 75 or 80 years might be possible. Causes of death in elephants include killing by humans, gastrointestinal tract disorders, pulmonary and respiratory disorders, miscarriage, starvation of old elephants after the last teeth have worn down, accidental falls from steep slopes, injuries from bull fights and occasionally bacterial diseases such as anthrax. The main cause of death in adult elephants is shooting. 
  • Twins are rarely reared successfully; they usually die within a few months of birth. (B384.5.w5)
  • The limit to elephant age appears to be the teeth: there are six sets of molars; once the sixth set has worn out the elephant will starve to death since it will be unable to feed itself properly. The last set of molars wears when the elephant is 50 to 70 years old. (B10.49.w21)
  • In the wild, elephants probably usually live to about 50 years old and probably have a potential 65 year life span. (B384.6.w6)
  • In captivity, working Asian elephants live to 50 to 60 years, with 67 recorded, while 69 years has been recorded for one individual in a zoo in Australia. (B384.6.w6)
  • A female in captivity was still living, with an estimated age of 75 to 80 years old. (B147)
  • In captivity, may live 75 to 80 years. (B285.w3)
  • A three-year study of two populations in southeastern Ceylon [Sri Lanka], 1967 to 1969, found that while the sex ratio in infant and juvenile elephants was approximately 1:1, in adults it was 20 to 50 males per 100 females, with a relative scarcity of subadult males. It was postulated that this might suggest high mortality among subadult males, which might be due to accidents, aggression from other males while travelling through their home ranges, and shooting by cultivators. (J325.125.w1)
  • In a three-year study of two populations in southeastern Ceylon [Sri Lanka], 1967 to 1969, detailed counts of two populations, carried out at short intervals, failed to reveal any losses of infant calves, suggesting a low mortality rate for this age group. (J325.125.w1)
  • In a three-year study of two populations in southeastern Ceylon [Sri Lanka], 1967 to 1969, the main known cause of mortality was shooting. (J325.125.w1)
  • In a study of elephants in southern India, 18% of deaths of cow elephants and 70% of bull elephant deaths were directly due to humans: for females, in defence of crops and in males for this purpose but also for tusk poaching. (B386.11.w11)
  • Causes of death in elephants include killing by humans, gastrointestinal tract disorders, pulmonary and respiratory disorders, miscarriage, starvation of old elephants after the last teeth have worn down, accidental falls from steep slopes, injuries from bull fights and occasionally bacterial diseases (e.g. anthrax). (B386.11.w11)
  • In a study in southern India, in the period to five years old, the death rate of male calves was twice as high as that of female calves. (B386.11.w11)
  • Estimated mortality from a sample of 90 elephants dying in the Nilgiri - Eastern Ghats area, 1977 to 1983, indicated that for female elephants the mortality rate was 4.6 % per year for the age class 0 - 5 years, 2.0% for the age class 5 - 10 years, 2.4% for the age class 10-15 years, 6.3% for the age class 15-20 years (possibly this higher rate was related to risks of first pregnancy) and 7.4% for those older than 20 years (possibly due to higher mortality in those more than 40 years old). (B386.11.w11)
  • During a study in southern India, while all deaths of male calves up to five years old were from natural causes, more than half of those for older males were due to humans. (B386.11.w11)
  • Elephants will die from starvation and malnutrition once the last molar is used up and food can no longer be properly chewed. (B451.1.w1)
  • Elephants have a lifespan of 50 - 70 years. (W580.Sept2005.w1)
  • Survival of female elephants is greater than survival of male elephants: there are more females than males in elephant populations and the difference in percentages of the two sexes increases in older age classes. (B396.3.w3)

Age Estimation Techniques: 

  • In a three-year study of two populations in southeastern Ceylon [Sri Lanka], 1967 to 1969, age estimation was mainly based on body size, related to mature adult females, together with characteristics indicating gender, and other characteristics such as a short trunk in infants. (J325.125.w1)
  • For age estimation from the teeth, the lower molars are generally used, since these wear faster and more regularly than do the upper molars. (B451.1.w1)

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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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