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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

Paula went for the pan as well, possibly not realizing that, with the heat of the day, this had become a prized locale. She clashed with another high-ranking elephant, while Bruce scampered off to avoid getting slugged by an angry trunk.

After the altercation, higher-ranking females repeatedly pushed Paula away. Mia barely drank, instead training her gaze on Paula, who kept her distance. Bruce did not escape the pressure. Not only was he deprived of a social experience, but he was also losing energy. Paula repeatedly tried to lift Bruce to a standing position using her hind foot as an elevating crutch, but to no avail. He wasn’t even able to nurse.

This is when I noticed Paula’s shriveled mammary glands. She was nowhere near as full as the other new mothers, as if the intensity of her social plight had stopped lactation.

Could it be that lower-ranking cows were more stressed and thus had fewer offspring? If so, hormonal suppression could indeed be a factor within female elephant hierarchies. But it could be more complicated, as in the case of marmoset groups; female subordinates don’t reproduce at all because of socially induced suppression of ovulation. These female monkeys’ cortisol levels drop to extremely low levels, changes similar to those seen in some women experiencing acute or chronic stress.

Other researchers have suggested that one reason certain elephant families with older individuals succeeded in having more calves during droughts was that the more experienced animals knew how to cope with the challenge. And other research has demonstrated that dominant families had access to better forage, so it would make sense that they might have higher overall reproductive fitness. But how did this play out between females within the same extended family? Did similar-aged females have the same number of calves on average, or did more distantly related family members have reduced reproductive fitness? Other elephant researchers had decided that dominance rank is not a predictor of female reproductive fitness, but maybe that question needs revisiting.

Reproductive suppression is well documented elsewhere in nature, either through endocrine or behavioral mechanisms or both, notably in primates such as baboons, mandrills and marmosets, but also in African wild dogs, dwarf mongooses and other species. Although it hasn’t been described yet in elephants, perhaps at least in tough times dominant females in my study population and their direct bloodline were exhibiting intolerance toward family members that were one step removed from the queen.

***

In the evenings, when I climbed into my sleeping bag, I wondered how Bruce would pass the night. Was Paula going to be able to protect her increasingly vulnerable little calf from predators? Despite the poor treatment she received, Paula probably wouldn’t risk going off on her own with such a small calf. Unlike Wynona, she had no other immediate family for support. As hard as it was to watch, I understood that I was most likely witnessing a natural fission of elephant families.

I nestled in farther to take the chill off and looked out at the Southern Cross hanging sideways in the sky. The kitelike constellation seemed close enough to touch. I heard a jackal to the east, emitting the signature alarm bark that to me sounded like “Lion! Lion! Lion! Ru-ru-ru!” I hoped that elephant was not on the menu tonight. But if it was, I understood. Everything I witness each field season is part of a natural order. Community, companionship, rejection, defeat and death are followed by renewal—and perhaps, for the elephants, and in particular, Wynona, that means becoming the queen of a brand-new family.

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