A rare occurrence in the entire wild kingdom, elephants have a scientifically thrilling family structure which resembles that of humans. Many parallels exist between the two unrelated species, and years of research have brought some truly fascinating facts regarding elephants and their unique family structure to the attention of the public. Elephant families, also known as pods, herds, or parades, are an amazing example of natural beauty; through compassion for one another, they stick together through even the harshest of circumstances.
Elephant herds tend to be grouped into two categories, which include the matriarchal herd, consisting of a head female elephant, known as the “matriarch,” and the bachelor pod, which is made up of a group of single male elephants. While similar in nature, the two types of herds do present some interesting differences.
Matriarchal herds are usually led by the eldest mother in the herd. They are relied on for many things in the herd, such as leading others towards food and out of danger and making group decisions (other elephants tend to gravitate towards the matriarch, and are obedient to orders). Once a matriarch becomes too old and passes away, the leader’s oldest daughter usually assumes her position at the top of the herd. Although leadership is usually passed on from mother to daughter, a matriarch can be challenged by younger, more capable elephants. When a herd becomes too large (herd sizes tend to fall between five and twenty members, depending on how readily available resources such as food and water are), grown females will leave the group, forming their own herds. The elephants that leave their original herd may still maintain contact with their old family – just one more example of how elephant families stick together.
Elephants tend to be very socially oriented, especially the females (also known as cows). Cows often assist each other in many situations, such as childbirth and raising young elephants. This type of close family connection herds share has lead to some astounding revelations. For example, the bond between a herd often grows so strong that when a member of the family passes away, the rest of the herd remains close to the deceased body for many days, mourning the loss of their fallen friend.
Male elephants (known as bulls) travel in strictly male groups, commonly referred to as bachelor pods. Many similarities between matriarchal herds and bachelor pods exist, particularly the fact that both types of families tend to stick together, and that strong ties are formed between family members. When ready to mate, males will briefly leave their pod in search of a female. Once the mating ritual is complete, the male returns to its pod, having little to do with teaching or raising young elephants. Like females elephants, bulls tend to break away from their families once they get older, creating new pods.
Elephant young are known as calves, and they are raised solely by female herds. Born with little to no survival instincts, calves rely on the matriarch and other older members of the family to teach them how to behave within the herd. Often travelling in single file while holding their mother’s tails in their trunks (making the alternative group term “parade” all the more endearing), calves are very dependant on their mothers, and the growth into adulthood takes as many as 18 years. A baby’s time spent with their mother and the herd creates bonds and memories that last a lifetime.
Because of their intricate family structures which rely so heavily on respect and compassion, elephant herds are a marvel to research. Sticking together is what elephant families do best; a life lesson from which many human families could greatly benefit.
By Christopher White