Friday, May 3, 2013

Elephants Are Like Us

They live about 70 years, very similar to the human life span. Baby elephants learn everything from their mothers and allomothers (related females who watch them closely and teach them along with their mothers – they are aunts, sisters, cousins).

They exhibit a high degree of social complexity. Their social network is unusually large, radiating out from the natal family through bond groups, clans, and independent adult males and beyond to strangers. The close and enduring cooperative social relationships operating between individuals and families within this fluid multi-tiered society is rare in the animal kingdom.

Elephants have unusually good memory. They accumulate and retain social and ecological knowledge, remembering the scents and voices of scores of other individuals and places for decades.

Elephants are able to make subtle discriminations between predators, even between different groups of people, showing that they comprehend the different levels of threat each poses.

Elephants have very large and complex brains. At an average of 4.8 kg the elephant brain is the largest among living and extinct terrestrial mammals. Elephants have the greatest volume of cerebral cortex available for cognitive processing of all land mammals. The neocortex, which in humans is the seat of enhanced cognitive function such as working memory, planning, spatial orientation, speech and language, is large and highly convoluted.

The behavior of elephants both in the wild and in captivity suggests that elephants are able to use their long-term memories to "keep score" and to extract "revenge" for wrongs done.

Elephants can discriminate between the bones of elephants and those of other animals, and they respond to the bones of elephants with special contemplation.

Their development includes social learning and behavioral innovation, which is manifested in the use and modification of rudimentary tools and in vocal learning.

Mirror self-recognition suggests that elephants are self-aware and numerous observations of empathetic and other behavior suggest that elephants have at least a rudimentary theory of mind. They have been witnessed feeding other unrelated elephants food when the other elephant had lost much of it’s trunk to a poacher’s snare.

Elephants are renowned for their memory, intelligence, and sociality, and, as with humans, these traits make them particularly vulnerable to stress and to trauma and its longer-term psychological consequences.

Elephants produce a wide range of vocalizations, many of which contain frequencies below the level of human hearing. Elephants use some of these powerful low frequency calls to communicate with other elephants over long-distances.

Elephants can also detect the vocalizations of their companions seismically. When an elephant vocalizes, an exact replica of this signal propagates separately in the ground. Elephants are able to discriminate between these vocalizations through their sensitive feet. They can detect earth tremors, thunderstorms and the hoof beats of distant animals in the same manner.

Elephants have an extraordinary sense of smell, which is said to be more discriminating than that of a bloodhound. While many other species may rival elephants in one capability or another, there are few that equal or surpass elephants in the totality of their social and behavioral complexity.

Elephants are a keystone species - meaning that they play a pivotal role in structuring both plant and animal communities, contributing to biodiversity through seed dispersal and the creation of habitat mosaics. They are a flagship species - in other words, being such "charismatic mega-vertebrates" elephants play a role as a symbol for the need for conservation of wildlife and nature.

Elephants are significant contributors to tourism revenue in many countries in Africa and Asia, they are a substantial part of our cultural and historical heritage and they give us pleasure to behold. • Elephants are valuable in their own right!

They have a complex society – from Family groups that are usually related females and their offspring, to Bond Groups that are groups of families, to Clans – when many groups or families meet together. These are usually formed seasonally and seem fluid to observers.

It seems that elephants group together when possible but when resources are scarce and the benefits of larger groups are outweighed by the need to disperse and find food, they do so.

They also have complex vocalizations that continue to be studied by Joyce Poole and her colleagues at Elephant Voices. Some of the calls used by elephants are powerful low frequency vocalizations that carry over long distances. Elephant can recognize the voices of hundreds of other elephants from up to 2 kilometers away.

Family members in particular have an extensive vocal repertoire and an unusually large communication network, a phenomenon that may be unique to long-lived mammals like elephants with fluid social systems, long-range signaling capacities and the mental capacity for extensive social recognition.

Very social creatures, young elephants are clearly taught how to act, what to do, what to eat and what not to eat. When a group of very young elephants were taken from a cull in south Africa and relocated as a group – they ‘went wild’ and killed rhinos and hippos, they didn’t know how to manage themselves. Much like Lord of the Flies – without societal rules and norms having been instilled, they simply did not know how to behave.

They don’t reach sexual maturity until about 13-14 years of age, much like us. As family groups are comprised of females, at that age young males are slowly pushed away from the group, and go off to create social ties to other males and to spend a good deal of time alone – especially when in musth – a state of heightened sexual hormone levels when the urge to mate and reproduce is strong.

Males depart from their natal family anywhere from 9 to 18 years of age - a process that can take anywhere from 1 to 4 years. As a teenager a male elephant must learn a whole new set of rules based on his rank relative to each other male in the population, and his fluctuating sexual state. His transition from one society to the other changes gradually, but dramatically, over a period of eight or more years.

Elephants have strong individual personalities that affect how they interact with other elephants, how others perceive them, and how well they are able to influence members of their group. For example, some elephants are popular while others are not. Some elephants show strong leadership qualities, others do not; some are highly social "extroverts", while others are less social, "introverts."

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