Male elephants stick together when humans are around
Behavioural adaption is creating a new social order, research suggests. Natalie Parletta reports.
The evolving tendency of endangered Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) to gather in all-male groups may be a behavioural adaptation to protect themselves in human-dominated environments, according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Asian elephants have suffered increasing habitat loss, leaving many homeless and escalating human-elephant clashes. In India alone, nearly 150 die each year from electrocution, poisoning, shooting or accidents as local communities protect themselves and their crops.
Young elephants growing up in this environment have two options, says lead author Nishant Srinivasaiah from the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Animal Behaviour and Cognition Program in Bengaluru, India.
They could learn through trial and error – especially adolescent males who need to venture out on their own – or learn from older elephants more experienced with humans.
To determine whether the increased group formations were driven by biological, environmental or human factors, Srinivasaiah and colleagues analysed 1445 photos of 248 male elephants collected across southern India over 23 months.
They found that sexually mature, socially immature adolescent bulls formed large groups when occupying non-forested areas or open croplands created by humans.
The largest gatherings were observed in areas with high crop availability, and individuals from these groups had better body condition than solitary male adults.
This supported the researchers’ hypothesis that their grouping is an adaptive behaviour that enables them to optimise their nutrient intake and reproductive fitness while protecting them from high-risk human environments.
Some of the larger groups in highly fragmented agricultural areas stayed together for several years. The “emergence of large, stable all-male groups in response to extrinsic environmental factors is a rather novel phenomenon,” the authors write.
The most significant finding, Srinivasaiah says, “has been the discovery and establishment of a new social order, the all-male group, in the Asian elephant society, as a response to exclusively anthropogenic factors”.
He says their body of research shows that elephants are highly intelligent beings, and “in a rapidly changing landscape, [they] need to update their mental model of reality all the time in order to survive”.
Understanding the mammals’ adaptive behaviour could help inform interventions to improve their coexistence with human populations and tackle the immense challenge of protecting them.
More specifically, Srinivasaiah suggests their findings have “the potential to aid wildlife managers to mitigate conflict… and develop better management strategies for elephant populations in the long term, especially in collaboration with local shareholders.”