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In Namibia’s Etosha National Park, elephants in the Warrior family gather at the Mushara water hole. (Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell and Tim Rodwell)

The Meanest Girls at the Watering Hole

A scientist studying female elephants—usually portrayed as cooperative—makes a surprising observation about their behavior

Among other things, we’ve learned during these seasons that male elephants are much more social than previously described. We began studying hierarchies and rituals among the bulls as they vied for dominance and sought companionship. Although male elephants have a reputation as loners—they leave their mothers’ extended families between the ages of 12 and 15—we saw them band together in what I call “boys’ clubs,” jockeying for favor with the highest-ranking male.

This year we turned our attention back on the females. Elephant family groups are matriarchal, with the oldest female leading her daughters, granddaughters and other female kin, usually anywhere from 15 to 30 animals in all. (The number varies elsewhere; in Amboseli National Park, in Kenya, groups of 2 to 20 have been reported.) Often daughters, younger sisters and cousins pitch in to raise others’ babies—more care increases the probability that the calf will survive, meaning more family genes are passed to the next generation.

There is a pecking order among the families. In fact, we often identify the matriarchal groups by the distinguishing physical features of their leaders, giving them family names such as the Bent Ear, the Crumple Ear and the Crooked Tail clans, as well as the Actors led by Queen, the Athletes led by Mia and the Warriors led by Left Tusker. Clear ranks emerge even amid the pandemonium of three, four or sometimes five extended families arriving at the Mushara water hole—more than 200 elephants on some occasions.

I recall when three groups arrived at the water hole around the same time. The family that was first to the trough was quickly displaced by another, which occupied the best drinking spot (akin to the seat at the head of the table) unchallenged throughout the visit. Members of a third family weren’t given access to the trough at all and were displaced even from the surrounding shallow clay pan. Standing in a clearing, these low-ranking elephants huddled and rumbled until it was their turn.

There is also hierarchy within elephant families, and research has shown that rankings are determined by age and size, with the oldest or largest females at the top. Susan, for example, was larger and most likely older than Wynona. But Susan’s status didn’t fully explain why she pushed Wynona around.

I had been monitoring Wynona since the 2005 season, and had observed what seemed like the entire family ganging up on her. Now I realized that a few good seasons of rain meant that more than the usual number of babies were born in the past few years. But this year, the rain came early, so things dried up sooner than normal. With so many elephants and very little available water, not only families but also individuals within families were competing with one another for access.

Another low-ranking female, Greta, in the Actor family, was also shunned by her own family members, as was her little calf Groucho. And the most dramatic case was Paula, from the Athlete family, who was aggressively bullied by all the others. Again I saw that it wasn’t just the low-ranking females who were marginalized—their calves were too.

That was in stark contrast to the treatment of new babies of high-ranking females in the Warrior clan, currently the most dominant family at Mushara. I’d seen three Warrior calves early in the day happily splashing together in the water hole pan, with no aggression directed at them. I’d also witnessed high-ranking females rescue a high-ranking baby that had fallen into the trough: In one case, I saw Mia, the Athlete family matriarch, kneel down and lift a calf of a high-ranking female out of the water as the calf’s mother stood by seemingly bewildered, not knowing what to do. Afterward, several family members gathered around to comfort the distraught youngster.

During the whole episode, Paula and her baby, Bruce, stood off in the distance. I wondered whether Mia would have done the same for Paula’s little one. After the poor treatment she’d received all season, I couldn’t imagine an elephant coming to Paula’s aid, much less the matriarch. Paula probably would have been left to handle the crisis alone (if she could have).

At this water hole, it seemed, hierarchy trickled down, with rank not dependent on age and size alone. Offspring of subordinate females were themselves subordinate. Perhaps, I began to think, high status could be hereditary, creating a kind of elephant royalty—and elephant peasants.

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