How Elephant Matriarchs Gain Power as They Age
Hannah Mumby on the Lessons We Might Learn From the Animal Kingdom
Win Oo had a lifetime written in his cross-hatched face and an infection in the base of his foot. He had worked in the forests of Sagaing, Myanmar since he was young. Since it was a different place. Now, or the 2014 version of now, we spray bright blue antiseptic on his footpad, and he redistributes his enormous weight. He will be cared for. Some elephants I know die in a hail of bullets, or in the climax of a fight, like Soshangane. But it takes a lot to kill an elephant; just ask George Orwell. Sometimes, hearing their breathing become slow and ragged is more painful than seeing them sag and disappear quickly. And many, like Win Oo, fade stoically with age. Elephants can look old even when they are brand new, thanks to their grey, wrinkled skin. When it’s dry and dusty, you think they could be a thousand years old. Even when their skin is slick and wet, they could be an ancient sea monster. Sometimes, they seem to age backwards.
I’ve come to find smoothness more alarming on an elephant than wrinkles: that tight smoothness could be obesity, impaction, oedema. With Win Oo, it was the foot that scared me. It was like a crater slicked with algae from that antiseptic spray, a murky Atlantis that has no business being attached to an elephant we all loved. Lameness in an elephant is like lameness in most quadrupeds: they need to stand to live. Win Oo got old and tired, and eventually he got sick. Win Oo was never alone. He was with us, and then, slowly, he wasn’t.
The pacing of an elephant life is so familiar as to almost be mundane: sexual maturity at ages ten to fifteen, and in the Myanmar elephants first pregnancies for females around eighteen. Just like humans. Offspring being dependent, suckling. The next pregnancy. The prospect of becoming a grandmother, grandparental care. Life stretching out 50, 60, up to over 80 years. It’s a life we recognize because it’s our life. As individuals, things might be different. Win Oo wasn’t the oldest elephant I knew, and yet he faded. Baby Hannah’s mum had many babies, and some of her friends had none at all. But the general pattern, we know it. We don’t require any leaps of imagination to understand it because we are all on that path ourselves.
My grandparents have always been older, that’s no revelation. But I suppose now I have to accept that they are old, in their mid-eighties. They had, for many years, a wooden elephant head on the back of their front door, carved in an orange-brown wood and shaped like a shield, with two short, blunt tusks and almond eyes that don’t need pupils. It had a 1970s minimalist air about it. Now, it lies on my desk, retired from many years of looking into a family home.
I went in the door it guarded for the first time before I was even aware of being myself; I was carried. My grandparents and parents knew me before I really knew I was alive, before I could remember anything for any substantive time. They called me by my name before I knew what a name was. Their names were among the first I knew, personalized versions of the bland English forms: Grandstar (who had always been Star to my mother), Grandfarth. I went through the door, under the elephant, so many times. I played in the garden by the willow tree with my sisters, sat on the swing chair, ate mountainous quantities of food. I jumped up and down in the loo, trying to reach the string to switch on the light, imagining that one day I would be tall enough to reach it. The end of the string now hangs by my hip.
My grandparents were, are, extremely important to me. That’s also the case for elephants. Mother presence, particularly in the early years, is vital to calf survival. But we also know that in the Myanmar elephants, those that have a living grandmother, and more importantly a grandparent living nearby, do better than others. A calf born to a young mother (younger than 20 years old) had eight times lower mortality risk if the grandmother lived in the same place as her grandcalf compared to calves with grandmothers residing elsewhere. Having a grandmother also decreased a daughter’s inter-birth intervals by one year, so she could reproduce faster.
This was all happening independently of the grandmother’s own reproduction—whether she had her own calf in the three years before the grandoffspring was born did not modify the beneficial effects she had. And the total number of calves she had in her lifetime was actually associated with reduced mortality in her grandcalf, with more experienced grandmothers (there were some with seven calves) having the biggest effect. From an evolutionary point of view, grandmothers increased their own fitness, or number of descendants, by enhancing the reproductive rates of their daughters and the survival of grandcalves. It makes sense, but it also plays out in our own families all of the time. I watch my own mother fly across continents to hold, change, feed and play with her grandchildren, and that’s when the science becomes life.
And this is how it is for an elephant too. All of that growing up and growing old is happening at the same time to different individuals, within the context of a group: a family structure for the females, something more complex and dispersed for the males. But it’s no wonder I see my elephants in my grandparents, and the other way around too. They understood all of this decades before I did. Because being an elephant, like being human, is about life experience and what you do with it.
Karen McComb undertook a lovely study on the idea of matriarchs, the oldest females in a group, as repositories of social knowledge. Such matriarchs are often grandmothers. My own grandmother would baulk at such a grand and academic-sounding title as “matriarch.” But she is indeed keeper of an incredibly tasty macaroni cheese recipe (with opaque instructions like ‘make it like a custard’) and the stories about her own mother, my great-grandmother, an eccentric and tough Londoner. Grandstar is connected in her village, she knows people. She has six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren at the last count. She could call herself a matriarch if she cared to.
The idea with the elephants is that, with age and experience, they accumulate a lot of knowledge about other elephants. To investigate this, researchers in Amboseli carried out a series of playback experiments, playing the vocalizations of elephants that the study herds would be familiar with and those they did not know. Imagine you hear the voice of someone you know: you might react by looking out for them. If you heard an individual that you didn’t know, maybe you’d be suspicious and want to protect your family. Elephants can respond in similar ways, with curiosity or with defensive postures, gathering the calves in the centre and facing outwards, ready for any possible approach from a stranger. It’s like they’re making their own elephant castle.
The team found that herds with older matriarchs were more likely to bunch together defensively in response to elephants that were unfamiliar to them than herds led by younger elephants. Those led by younger females might waste time responding defensively to familiar elephants, or missing the chance to get in formation in response to an unfamiliar elephant call. In a separate study, they showed that younger matriarchs also responded less defensively to playbacks of lion calls than herds led by older matriarchs. The older matriarchs also listened longer to the recordings of male lions than of female lions, suggesting they were interested in it. They stopped what they were doing to be aware of it, something their younger counterparts didn’t do. A lion can be a real threat and a predator to calves, particularly a male lion, which can take a calf down alone. I know elephants take in a lot of sensory information including olfactory cues in their environment, but it’s telling that older matriarchs reacted to those lion roars. When it comes to real life, the knowledge of these matriarchs really could be vital to survival and the continuation of the whole family.
It’s not just knowledge about other animals that matriarchs possess, it’s also knowledge about the landscape. Elephants are renowned for their spatial memory, and it’s not just a saying. One study on elephants in Etosha National Park, Namibia, illustrates just this. The park includes a salt pan, which forms one of those saline desert places, almost moonscapes. The deepest depression fills fleetingly with water in the wet season, attracting flamingos and pelicans. But beyond the salty place, the majority of the land is woodland savannah, sprinkled liberally with mopane, that splash of green in dry places, with leaves like butterflies, sometimes home to thick white and black mopane worms, which, cooked right and with your eyes closed, taste like crisps. The researchers showed that elephants have highly directional movement, almost always to perennial water sources.
The fact that elephants reached the nearest water source to them 90 per cent of the time indicates they do have a sense of where the water is. Elephants could start directing their movement to a waterhole on average 4.59 kilometers from the water and up to 49.97 kilometers away. This really illustrates both knowledge of the landscape and distribution of water sources and the development of strategies to minimize distance travelled to water. In the dry season, the distance of the decision point to move to water increased, indicating that the elephants adapted their behavior to the more sparse water distribution at that time of year.
Elephants don’t just use their memory when it comes to water. They can smell it, and they dig for it, accessing water that to many species would just not be available. But the holes they leave behind are available to others, such as humans, for example. Elephants are fussy about their water. I have experience of animals being that way. My dog will often ignore water, even when it’s freshly filled in her bowl, but will happily drink water out of my hands.
I know the feeling too. My kidney condition makes me a prodigious water drinker. The quantity I am supposed to drink to keep my own hormones in check becomes tedious. I try squeezing in lemon, pretending sparkling water is champagne. I imagine my kidneys, coated in cysts like bubble wrap, but much less fun to pop. I down yet another glass of water. The offending organs float away on a torrent; bloated, blood-filled deleterious detritus.
Elephants also have a thirst to quench. In dry areas, it can be exasperating when elephants routinely damage boreholes to get water, even when there are pools of artificial water available. A study in north-western Namibia found that over a period of two years, the water from elephant “wells” and boreholes that elephants had dug had lower levels of coliform bacteria when compared to the nearest surface water. This could be an example of how they adapt culturally to the landscape they are faced with, something so familiar from the human experience. I nodded when I read that the elephant wells weren’t any less saline than the surface water, though. I know how much elephants have a taste for salt.
From the book Elephants: Birth, Life, and Death in the World of the Giants by Hannah Mumby. Copyright © 2020 by Hannah Mumby. To be published on May 12, 2020 by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.