If you’re a female elephant, there’s a right way and a wrong way to play the mating game. To maximize your chances of reproductive success, it’s best to pair up with a dominant bull elephant in musth, a state of heightened arousal in which testosterone courses through the bull’s body, increasing both his sex drive and his aggression. A high-ranking musth elephant not only makes the fittest mate, but he can protect you by scaring off the less desirable younger males who would otherwise chase you around.
An experienced female knows this well, and plays the game accordingly. When she goes into heat – or oestrus – and attracts male suitors through chemicals in her urine, she gives impressive senior bulls the green light by holding her tail high, walking with an exaggerated gait, and exchanging affectionate trunk caresses. Lower-ranking young males don’t fare so well. She actively avoids them and, to the extent they aren’t chased off by her favored partner, she’ll often spurn their advances by running away. (Little known fact: female African elephants can typically outrun male ones.)
It’s not so easy for a young female entering oestrus for the first time. She sometimes runs from the larger musth males, who can weigh more than twice as much as her, and not infrequently ends up consorting with a series of younger, lesser males. This can lead to unfortunate results, especially when you consider that an elephant pregnancy lasts 22 months.
Now, though, there’s evidence that experienced females may help their younger relatives in sorting through the confusing tangle of elephant sexual dynamics. These helpful older elephants – sisters, aunts, mothers, and matriarchs – appear to simulate oestrus in order to show their innocent family members how to act, enabling them to avoid the pitfalls of poor mating choices.
After hearing anecdotal accounts of this behavior, a team led by Lucy Bates of the University of St. Andrews decided to dig deeper by taking advantage of an invaluable resource – a comprehensive multi-decade database cataloging the daily life activities of 2,200 Amboseli elephants compiled by Cynthia Moss, Joyce Poole, and other researchers as part of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project (AERP).
Bates and her colleagues systematically combed through 28 years of detailed AERP records and located all occasions on which an observer had concluded that an identifiable elephant was in oestrus (based on postural and behavioral changes in females, interactions with males, etc.). In total, they found descriptions of 999 oestrus events, slightly less than 10% of which (98 events) recorded two or more members of the same elephant family displaying simultaneous oestrus behavior.
Next, the researchers cross-referenced these accounts with AERP demographic records to find any that must have been “false” oestrus events, which they defined as oestrus-like behavior by a female who was either already pregnant, in a state of lactation-induced infertility, or senescent (which they deemed to be the case if she was over 50 years old, had not given birth to any calves during the prior five years, and had no subsequent calves).
They discovered that, while false oestrus behavior was relatively rare (occurring only 19 times and representing only about 2% of all recorded oestrus events), its timing was fascinating. Very often, it occurred just when a young relative was coming into oestrus for the first time.
Even though simultaneous oestrus behavior had been recorded less than 10% of the time, over half of the false oestrus events (10/19) clearly occurred at the same time as the true oestrus of a young female family member who had never given birth. Further, subsequent birth records confirmed that on four additional occasions a false oestrus event occurred during the month that a young relative conceived her first calf (that is, the young female must have been in oestrus at the time, even though it wasn’t specifically called out in the AERP database). Finally, one of the false oestrus events occurred simultaneously with the genuine oestrus of a female relative who had given birth before. Thus, the large majority of the false oestrus events – 15 of 19 – coincided with true oestrus events, in most cases, the first oestrus of a young relative. (Moreover, note that the balance of the false oestrus events could also have coincided with true ones if, as in the four cases described above, the true oestrus event simply had not been observed or recorded in the AERP database.)
The researchers then examined various hypotheses that might explain the false oestrus behavior:
- That false oestrus merely results from hormonal changes and has no functional purpose;
- That it somehow induces sexual receptivity in the simulating female, thereby increasing her own chances of successfully reproducing;
- That it indirectly benefits the simulating female by providing a young family member with increased access to suitable males (this type of indirect benefit is known as an inclusive fitness benefit); or
- That it indirectly benefits the simulating female by encouraging a confused younger relative to engage in more suitable oestrus behavior (another potential example of inclusive fitness).
They quickly rejected the all but the final hypothesis. For one, hormonal changes couldn’t adequately explain either the observed patterns (false oestrus occurred in both pregnant and non-pregnant females, as well as during all stages of pregnancy) or the higher-than-expected coincidence of false oestrus with the genuine oestrus events of inexperienced relatives. Second, it was clear that the simulating elephants weren’t improving their own reproductive success: in 14 of 19 cases the simulating the female was already pregnant, and in four others she was senescent. Third, AERP records revealed that false oestrus behavior had no impact on the number of available males, the relative percentage of males who were in musth, or the amount of sexual activity engaged in by inexperienced female.
Ultimately, the researchers concluded that:
Further data is required to confirm or reject the hypothesis that this behaviour functions to teach the young, naïve females, but we suggest that it remains the only viable possibility based on the current analyses.
In particular, they noted that additional research and data collection was necessary to explain the instances in which false oestrus didn’t appear to coincide with an inexperienced relative’s oestrus as well as to support the notion that inexperienced females were able to correct substandard mating behavior after they were shown what to do by their older relatives.
In the meantime, though, you’d be well advised to stay away from those frivolous young guys and find yourself a dashing older bull who knows his way around the herd.
Bates, L., Handford, R., Lee, P., Njiraini, N., Poole, J., Sayialel, K., Sayialel, S., Moss, C., & Byrne, R. (2010). Why Do African Elephants (Loxodonta africana) Simulate Oestrus? An Analysis of Longitudinal Data PLoS ONE, 5 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010052.