Elephants in the Field

For three months, I’ve been spending a lot of time away from our
lab’s two focal species, chimpanzees and capuchins, in favor of a
slightly larger, yet still highly intelligent mammal, the elephant.
Yesterday, I sat in a field in a northern Thai jungle watching a
group of semi-captive Asian elephants ever-so-slowly grazing on a
large plot of jungle grass. As is often the case, one of the young
infants in a family group of 5-6 individuals wandered away from her
family and over to one of the males in musth – a period during which
bull elephants are often aggressive and “hormonal,” and playfully
began to tease him, chirping – repetitive, often high-pitched sounds
that elephants make for a variety of reasons including excitement –
and backing in and out of the bull’s trunk range. All of a sudden,
for no apparent reason (at least not for one my eyes or ears could
pick up), she let out a loud, infant-specific squeal. Three of the
four females standing on the other side of the field immediately
responded, and with their ears out, tails raised and legs in a full-
on sprint, each let out loud trumpet bursts before they reached the
“lost” infant. They immediately circled around her, all facing
outward while they kept her enclosed in the middle, touching her with
their trunks and continuously rumbling, while obviously paying
careful attention to the surrounding environment. A few minutes
later, the fourth individual, slowly walked over to the infant,
touched her face, and resumed her morning grazing.

Such infant-centric behavior is not uncommon in elephants, and
African elephant researchers J. Poole, C. Moss, K. Payne and I.
Douglas-Hamilton have all described it in their own investigations of
elephant behavior. But something sticks out here – the fourth, less-
interested elephant is in fact the infant’s mother. The other three
elephants are the infant’s “aunties,” and although they all share a
place in what appears to be a cohesive family unit, they are all
completely unrelated to the infant, and each other. The complexity
of such cooperative and seemingly empathic behavior is one of the
many areas on which I hope to focus my research here. If you’d like
to find out more, feel free to contact me at jplotni@emory.edu.

— Josh Plotnik