Video: Old Female Elephants Make the Best Leaders

Credit: Graeme Shannon

What good is an older female elephant to her herd, especially one in her 60s and well-beyond her prime reproductive years? She's the best leader and the one most capable of making wise decisions, according to a study of African elephants (Loxodonta africana) in Kenya's Amboseli National Park that was published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The oldest female in an elephant herd is always the leader. Researchers tested the decision-making skills of these matriarchs by playing recordings of lions roaring; they monitored the elephants' reactions to the roars of a single lion versus three lions for both male and female lions. Because of their size and heft, single male lions can pose a greater threat to elephants than do female lions. The oldest matriarchs proved best at recognizing a male lion's roar, as 66-year-old Joyce does in this video. When she hears the three male lions, she bunches her herd in a tight phalanx to ward off a possible attack. The study provides the first experimental evidence that the members of a herd benefit from an older leader—a discovery, the researchers say, that also shows how vital it is to protect the elders (who usually have the biggest tusks) from ivory poachers.

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