Elephant Selfie By Christian Le Blanc

Elephants are known to be highly intelligent animals, but they also have a highly sophisticated social structure.  Males and females do not live in one population, females live in large families while males will commonly live in solitary but can also form small groups for periods of time.  Unsurprisingly, females and males have some drastically different social behaviors but also feature some similarities that can are only seen in highly complex animals.  This post will be covering the different social structures of male and female elephant populations.


“An elephant close by” By Rob Hooft CC BY-SA 3.0

Female elephants live in small families that include a grandmother (if alive), a mother and her daughters including her calves if she has any.  These families typically range from 6 to 20 individuals and always possess a leader known as a matriarch.  The matriarch is the manager of the family, being the oldest, wisest, and typically largest of the pack.  The matriarch has many jobs which include leading the family away from predators, deciding when to leave and where to go, making a move in a crisis situation, keeping all of the individuals in the family together as much as possible, and teaching the young how to care for their young.  Almost all behaviors exhibited by elephants are learned behaviors as elephants are born with very practically no instinctive patterns!  Even the females that haven’t reached the age of sexual maturity are taught to baby sit the babies so mothers have the time to stay at watering holes and gather food as they normally would.  This system wouldn’t continue without the presence of the matriarch, as they are the source of knowledge in the family.  Vicki Fishlock observes families of female elephants and notes that families with a weak leader don’t tend to stay together.  One family, while large with 23 individuals, commonly splits into three groups between the three oldest females.  Even when the individuals are following Alison, the matriarch, they travel in sub groups showing that they aren’t the closest of families.  This is a common problem when the matriarch dies, as the rest of the family mourns and time is needed for a new matriarch to know how to lead.

“Elephants mourn death of matriarch” By Wildlife Action Group Malawi

Male elephants, known as bulls, live with their mother and her family until they are between 12 and 15 years old which is when males are sexually mature and branch off to live in solitaire or find a bachelor pod.  Bachelor pods, unlike female families, are made up of any lone male looking for a group to associate with.  These groups typically have male elephants of all ages and normally feature an alpha male.  In a group observed by Caitlin O’Connell, there are 15 males present and the alpha of the group was referred to as the don, also known as Greg.  These male elephants, not so much different than humans had a social structure that consisted of Greg at the top, more mature elephants referred to as high ranking bulls, and young bulls which were considered low ranking.  Oddly enough, Caitlin compared the interaction of these bulls to that of the Mafia which, based off my limited knowledge from movies, doesn’t sound too insane to say.  Whenever the don shows up to the watering hole, the other elephants clear way and give Greg the location with the cleanest water.  After this, the other elephants, whilst trembling in fear, put their trunk in the mouth of the don, which Caitlin referred to as “Kissing the Don’s ring”.  Greg does more than just this however, as he is also the leader of the group, making decisions on when to leave and where to go.  The other bulls simply line up and follow his lead, but sometimes, when a bull is in musth, things get a little out of hand.

“Waring Elephants | Deadly Instincts” By Nat Geo WILD

When elephants go into musth, it’s typically a change in hierarchy that lasts as long as musth lasts.  Musth is something elephants of all sexually mature ages do, and when reproductive hormone production is increased dramatically.  Elephants in musth are very agressive, secrete a sticky substance from their temporal region, and leak urine consistently.  Other elephants disregard the hierarchy if another elephant is in musth and allow the bull to do as it pleases until it is out of musth.  That is most of the time.  One case witnessed by Caitlin featured a high ranking elephant going into musth and all elephants clearing the way to allow him to drink the best water.  That is all expect for Greg.  Greg did not want to be dethroned as the alpha and squared up to the elephant prepared to fight.  Because of the aggressive nature of elephants in musth most elephants would stand no chance, but Greg managed to retain his place in the hierarchy leading the way at the end of the day.  Going into musth normally only occurs in one elephant at a time, so when individuals are in musth, their reproductive likeliness is at it’s highest.  This allows for lower ranking elephants to still reproduce  increasing the diversity of the species.

While males and females have very different social structures in their groups, it’s really interesting to see some of the similarities seen in our society.  These are highly intelligent animals that are being hunted at a substantial rate for their ivory.  The population of elephants has been so overly hunted that the rate of elephants born without tusks is at an all time high.  Tusks are an important phylogeny for foraging and without tusks we could see a decrease in size or even the loss of more traits.  Save the Elephants is a group who’s goal is to “secure a future for elephants and to sustain the beauty and ecological integrity of the places they live; to promote man’s delight in their intelligence and the diversity of their world, and to develop a tolerant relationship between the two species”.  The sooner something is done the more likely tusks are conserved which should, at the very least, be a starting point for maintaining diversity within the species.


  1. Very interesting blog post! The managerial role of the matriarch is fascinating – especially the fact that the group becomes fragmented and takes time to mourn after shes dies. I’m currently working on a blog post on how trophy hunting can have a broad affect on savanna ecology by disrupting elephant social behavior if the matriarch is shot. I’ll make sure to link to this post!

  2. Another fascinating post, thanks Josh! Much has been written about mourning in elephants. The interactions that elephants have with their dead is still not fully understood, and not easily explained from a simple evolutionary basis. It is complicated to study animal emotions, and tempting to anthropomorphize. Did you find any scientific references on this?

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