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Elephants and social learning

Learning through watching the behavior of others, or social learning, is an important component of the acquisition of behavior in elephants. For instance, young elephants learn what to eat by reaching up and sampling what is in the mouths of their mothers. And young females learn how to successfully raise their calves by watching adult females and through their own experience as allomothers. You can read more about this on Elephant learn from others.

I have often wondered how young males make the transition from their female dominated natal families to becoming an independent adult male. The two worlds are so very different. Are the changes necessary just programmed in, or do young males learn how to be a properly functioning adult by watching the behavior of older males? From watching elephants, I believe that, just like us, it’s a little of both, but having access to role models is very important for the acquisition of normal adult male (or female) behavior.

Many of you will have heard of the case where young male orphans from a cull were released into Pilanesberg National Park. Without older male role models they adopted aggressive and anti-social behavior, even making a habit of killing rhinos. Likewise, captive male elephants in zoos and circuses have no possibility of learning from normal adult males. Males are routinely separated from other elephants, so there simply aren’t any socialized males to learn from.

I have often watched the behavior of young males in the company of an older musth male, with a feeling of tenderness in my heart. These newly independent youngsters watch the older males so closely, doing their best to follow everything that the older males do, without drawing too much attention to their presence. For instance, when an older musth male moves through a group of females testing a series of urine spots on the ground, a young male can often be seen standing nearby paying close attention but trying to appear as unimposing as possible (his head low and facing slightly away). Once the older male moves on the younger male follows behind sniffing at all the same places.

In December we watched a very sweet interaction between two males, which shows just how early a young male can begin to learn social roles in the wild. In the series of photographs taken by Petter, a calf of less than a year watches as a teenage male tests some recently deposited urine. Social  learning  among elephants. (©ElephantVoices)The teenager approaches the urine spot, and stops to sniff carefully, placing his trunk tip over the urine, and blowing warm air out (so as to release volatile substances) and then breathing in. An infant male approaches him, and using his trunk and his eyes he follows closely what the older individual is doing. He reaches toward the tip of the older male’s trunk as he exhales and up toward the older male’s mouth as the male puts a sample of urine in his mouth against his vomeronasal organ for testing (Flehmen). The little male then tests the urine for himself. Having satisfied his curiosity, the infant male wanders back to his mother’s side.

Trumpets, Joyce