Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

The Wisdom of Wild Elephant Matriarchs

March 25, 2011

A joke in my house is that I’m a poster child for the sandwich generation. Like legions of other women, I work a full-time job, have a child still living at home (and I’d say there’s some truth to the claim that teenagers need as much parental attention and time as toddlers), and contribute at a moderate level to helping out an elderly parent.

Come August, my daughter will head off to college, an impending event both exciting for the whole family and yet unfathomable to me now as to how it’ll feel. At the other end of the generational spectrum, my mother, age 84, lives independently in a very good senior-living complex, but does need some help with shopping, medical appointments, bill-paying, and managing the endless red-tape forms and documents that conspire to drive all of us just a bit mad.

Naturally enough, since I think about animals so much, I have pondered the life cycle of other species. Far more scholarship exists on the infant, juvenile, and adolescent stages of life in mammals than on old-age. Perhaps play-hopping, energy-vibrant youngsters are eye-catching in any wild population; a host of questions arise about how these underage creatures learn the ins and outs of the world about them. (My own dissertation research asked how infant baboons in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park learn about foraging behavior from adults.)

This week I read a new article whose subtitle grabbed me for its unusual focus: Leadership in elephants: the adaptive value of age. Appearing online in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the article is written by a septet of scientists: Karen McComb, Graeme Shannon, Sarah M. Durant, Katito Sayialel, Rob Slotow, Joyce Poole, and Cynthia Moss. Years ago in Kenya, I overlapped at Amboseli with Joyce Poole and Cynthia Moss, and ever since, I find anything they’ve worked on to be fascinating and insight-producing.

That’s the case with this paper. McComb et al. report on the results of a playback-of-recorded-vocalizations experiment conducted at Amboseli, where 1500 elephants live in 58 distinct family groups. Because individual identities and life histories are known, it’s the perfect setting for investigating what old females—elephant matriarchs—know.

To understand this work, it’s helpful to learn something first about lion-hunting behavior. Despite the popular perception that lionesses are the successful hunters, it’s male lions who excel at predation on megafauna like elephants and buffalo. “While hunting success typically increases with group size,” the scientists note, “it has been demonstrated that male lions have the capability of overpowering a young elephant even when hunting alone.” The most salient factors, then, in terms of hunting risk experienced by elephants, would be more (rather than fewer) and male (rather than female) lions.

The experimental methodology involved “giving elephant family units playbacks of three lions versus a single lion roaring and, within these categories, roaring from male versus female lions.” Lion roars had first been tape-recorded at Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, and were played in 72 experimental bouts to 39 of the elephant families at Amboseli.

The elephants’ responses were captured on video. During the analysis phase, five behaviors were tallied and evaluated with “particular reference to the matriarch”: prolonged listening, presence of bunching (or decreased spatial spread of the group), degree of bunching intensity, approach of the matriarch toward the playback source, and the family’s moving toward the matriarch.

Not all responses were age-dependent: when three lions roared, elephant families responded more strongly than when a single lion roared, independent of matriarch age. Among the most striking results was that matriarch age does matter for the most serious threats. Sensitivity of response to the lions’ sex increased with matriarch age, and families with older matriarchs were more likely to approach the playback source.

The oldest females of all—those aged 60 years and above—showed particular acuity in terms of risk assessment:

“The oldest matriarchs were more likely to engage in prolonged periods of listening and exhibited greater defensive bunching (higher probability of bunching and greater bunching intensity) in response to male versus female roars, demonstrating their key role in identifying and responding to this most serious threat.”

McComb et al. note that the matriarchs’ superior ability to detect male lions at an early stage of interspecies encounter “is likely to have significant survival benefits affording better protection for vulnerable calves in particular.” This skill at distinguishing lion roars by sex is no mean feat, at least judging by human behavior—we are quite bad at discriminating male versus female roars!

In sum, the direct experimental evidence in this paper shows that elephant matriarchs are the best “first responders” (my term) to ecological challenges faced by elephant families.

Among social, big-brained, and long-lived animals, lengthy life-- of females especially in certain cases-- brings with it much accumulated experience that may benefit a family. When my teenager and I visit my mother this weekend, we won’t be playing her any tape-recorded lion roars, and probably we’ll refrain from greeting her as “the oldest matriarch.” We’ll remember, though, that age brings with it hard-won and eminently share-able wisdom.


  1. March 25, 2011 6:41 AM EDT
    I've often wondered if the sleeplessness that many older women experience is a way of assuring that someone in the group is watching while younger people sleep--but I can't figure out how that would be selected for since older women aren't passing their DNA along. Is there any research about that anywhere?
    - Mary Pratt
  2. March 25, 2011 11:14 PM EDT
    The discovery that a 60+ matriarch is the one who can best save the family from a lone marauding lion sits well with me.
    - Margaret Trawick

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.