August 2023

Development of elephants

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Development of elephants

Elephants have to be one of the most interesting animals we have the privilege of spending time with while on safari in Africa. They captivate humans like no other animal, and leave you with a feeling of calm and euphoria, without doing much at all. Possibly one of the reasons for this, the connection we feel with these amazing creatures, is because of the similarities we have with them and the familiarity of all they do. With a lifespan longer than any other terrestrial mammal, besides humans, elephant have an extended period of development, much like we do.

The family dynamic of an elephant herd is also very similar to humans in many ways, with the matriarch (oldest female, or grandmother, of the group) leading her younger sisters, her daughters, her nieces and their respective calves, raising them all together. A family will be the first thing a calf sees when it comes out onto this earth, a swarm of fiercely protective giants, surrounding its mother as she goes through the vulnerable process of labour. Then, a celebration, trumpeting and grumbling, as the midwives rush in to ensure the newly dropped calf is protected from any threats while still immobile, while the mother and more mature females gently prod the infant with their trunks, encouraging it to stand. It truly is a family affair, much like in human culture.

After a gestation of 22 months, these calves are understandably very well-developed (precocial) and like most large mammalian herbivores, are able to stand soon after birth, normally walking with the mother within two hours. Their bodies can weigh about 100 kg (220 pounds) and will already stand about 1m (3ft) tall, which is important because it needs to be able to reach the teats between its mothers front legs to suckle. With initially poor eyesight, just like in human children, the calves will rely on touch, scent and sound to recognise their mothers and will always stay very close to her as the herd begins to move. In the first eight years if its life, it will spend 80% of its time within a few metres of its mother or another member of the herd, as it gets older and braver.

A baby elephant will have a set of milk tusks which develop within the first year and are shed to make way for its permanent tusks. These tusks are elongated upper incisors, which will extend beyond the upper lip after about two years of age and continue to grow throughout the elephant’s life, being worn down and sometimes even broken during their feeding activities. Just like humans, elephants will tend to be either left- or right-dominant, indicated by the appearance of their tusks with notches forming in the dominant tusk from more consistent use. As seen during development of humans, very young children appear not to have a preference, but this develops gradually with age.

Luckily, in their first four months, elephant calves depend fully on their mothers for milk so they do not need their tusks for feeding just yet. They will drink up to 10 litres (3 gallons) per day of highly nutritious milk, sometimes even suckling from another closely related member of the herd such as the grandmother (allo-suckling). During this time the trunk, which is also a vital tool for feeding, has a low muscle tone and is not much use to the calf until it starts to copy the movements it sees from older members of the family. “Monkey-see, monkey- do”, sound familiar?

Between four and six months, these little copycats start to handle food and vegetation and interact with other members of the herd, making use of the trunk more and more and thus developing not only the muscles but also the co-ordination required for controlling this most amazing and multipurpose appendage. It can take up to one year to have full control of the 40 000 muscles that make up the trunk, a comparable age to when human babies are accurately grasping and manipulating objects with the 30 muscles making up the human hand.

In this time, the calf will have started supplementing its diet with the vegetation it is able to pluck with its trunk and get into the mouth (although much of it falls to the ground on the way there at first) and so starts the long process to weaning, which can take between two and three years, although it has been observed to take longer. Learning constantly from the rest of the herd, what to eat and what not to eat, and copying the movements of how to break the foliage it wants away from the rest of the plant. It’s all very technical!

Amy Roberts
By Amy Roberts
Field Guide