Don’t trust any elephant under 60

Older matriarchs better judges of danger

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WISDOM OF AGES Elephants like these in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park respond more appropriately to threats if the matriarch in a family group has lived long enough to learn about rare but dangerous lion attacks. Graeme Shannon

Not to cause dinner table shouting or new excesses of political punditry — but in a test of a particular leadership skill among elephants, age and experience really did trump youth and beauty.

Elephant matriarchs 60 years of age or older tended to assess threats in a simulated crisis more accurately than younger matriarchs did, says Karen McComb of the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. When researchers played recordings of various lion roars, elephant groups with older matriarchs grew especially defensive at the sound of male cats. Younger matriarchs’ families underreacted, McComb and her colleagues report in an upcoming Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B.

The older females have it right, McComb says. Male lions rarely attack an elephant, but when they do, they can be especially deadly: A single male can bring down an elephant calf.

Studying leadership among animals has become an active research area. “People have become intrigued by some of the parallels between the sorts of characteristics that seem to define a leader in animals and in humans,” McComb says.  

The new elephant approach “is definitely novel,” says psychologist Mark van Vugt of VU University Amsterdam, who studies the evolution of leadership. The new paper extends a general observation — that older individuals show more leadership in tasks involving specialized knowledge — into situations involving threats.

“There is an interesting trade-off here, which certainly applies to humans and maybe elephants as well,” van Vugt says. “The group might want a young, fit and aggressive leader to defend the group — the Schwarzenegger type — but at the same time might want an older, more experienced leader — the Merkel type — to make an accurate assessment of the dangers in the situation.”

Among elephants, family groups made up of a matriarch and a dozen or so of her female kin and their youngsters can stay together for decades. The oldest elephant provides leadership, but “she doesn’t lead by being heavy-handed,” McComb says. She may not walk at the front of the group when they commute to their morning waterhole, but the other elephants pay attention to where she goes and how she reacts.

To test for crisis leadership among elephants, McComb and her colleagues played lion calls to 39 elephant families in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. Researchers compared reactions to roars from one lion versus three lions. All the matriarchs correctly perceived that three was more worrisome than one. “It was quite a revelation” says coauthor Graeme Shannon, also of Sussex. Before this test, evidence had been unclear about how widespread numerical threat assessment would be. The older matriarchs managed another layer of awareness though, by judging male lions more threatening than females.

“If you remove these older individuals, you’re going to have a much bigger impact than you realize because they’re repositories of ecological knowledge and also of social knowledge,” McComb says. Poachers, targeting the big old elephants, pose a particular menace to the species.

OH NO! OH NO! from Science News on Vimeo.

Elephants react to what they perceive as a very dangerous lion during a test of threat assessment.
Credit: Courtesy of Karen McComb

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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