Elephants: Young males rein in aggression if older males are nearby

Young male elephants will sometimes attack humans or other animals, but seem less likely to do so if they are in the company of older males


22 December 2021


A male elephant acting aggressively

Connie Allen

Young male elephants appear to manage their aggression towards anything that isn’t an elephant by modelling their behaviour on older males.

Adolescent males are particularly aggressive towards vehicles and non-elephant animals when they are alone. But when they find themselves around mature males, they seem to “behave better”, with a reduced fight-or-flight response, says Connie Allen at the University of Exeter, UK.

The findings could help people better understand – and possibly even reduce instances of – dangerously aggressive behaviour in young male elephants roaming freely in human villages, while supporting conservation efforts, she says.

“We really need to ensure that there are plenty of older males in the population, to sort of regulate these aggressive behaviours in the other elephants,” says Allen. “And if the young guys are on their own, they need to be given a lot of space. I wouldn’t go up to them or approach them, because they might be in this really heightened, stressed, risk-prone state.”

“A big takeaway here is to avoid over-hunting of these older males,” she says. “They really are the preferred targets of hunting.”

Allen and her colleagues filmed African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) as they arrived in “hotspots” – popular riverbank sites and mudholes – in Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans National Park. Here, 98 per cent of the elephants seen by villagers are male and human-elephant conflict has led to fatalities among both species. Male elephants spend up to 63 per cent of their lifetimes in all-male groups and 18 per cent of their time alone, says Allen.

The researchers categorised the elephants as young adolescents (10 to 15 years old), older adolescents (16 to 20 years old), young adults (21 to 25 years old) and older, sexually and socially mature adults (26 years or older). They only analysed video clips of males that weren’t around females and weren’t in musth, a natural period that occurs each year in which males have heightened sexual arousal and are often more aggressive.

Males of any age seemed less aggressive towards non-elephants when there were older males nearby, says Allen. But solitary adolescent males in particular were the most likely to show aggression and fear-like behaviour. In fact, they even acted aggressively towards animals and objects that wouldn’t logically be a threat – bashing vegetation or charging birds and gazelles, for example.

“They might be feeling this heightened stress, and they take it out on other things instead of other elephants,” says Allen, adding that any aggression towards another elephant could lead to a “really dangerous” conflict. “But if they take it out on something that they know is not so much a threat to them, maybe that’s kind of a redirected aggression,” she says.

The presence of at least one older adult male, however, seemed to help keep those reactions at bay, she says. While older elephants didn’t appear to actively correct the younger ones’ behaviour, the younger males might have gauged their own conduct according to how the older elephants acted.

“I don’t know how scientific it is to use the word ‘mentor’, but they seem to be aware of the older males in their environment,” says Allen. “It’s really tough to be a young male elephant and to make it to that [mature] age. So, for sure, they look at the older males as sort of role models of what it takes to be successful.”

Journal reference: Proceedings of the Royal Society B, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2021.1374

Sign up to Wild Wild Life, a free monthly newsletter celebrating the diversity and science of animals, plants and Earth’s other weird and wonderful inhabitants

More on these topics: