Experts have recently found that older matriarchs, in particular those aged over 60 years of age, were more likely to listen intently for the sound of male lions and to behave more defensively when exposed to the sound of predators such as lions which pose a major threat, particularly to younger elephants.
The findings were reported in the journal “Proceedings B” of the British Royal Society. The elephant herd as a whole benefits from the experience of the older animals since these have often gained their wisdom through mastering hazardous situations which they never forget.
The work also provides evidence that individuals within a social group benefit from the experience of their older members.
The researchers led by behavioural ecologist Karen McCom of Sussex University in Brighton played recordings of lions roaring to 39 elephant families living in Amboseli National Park in Kenya.
On some of the recordings three lions could be heard and on others only one predator. The elephants all reacted more strongly to the sound of more lions but those with younger matriarchs tended to underestimate the dangers posed.
Family herds led by older matriarchs reacted more subtly to the acoustic cues. They listened more attentively and for a longer period and the families reacted to the threat in a more coordinated manner.
In some cases they moved together in the direction of the roars with an offensive charge in a bid to drive off the lions.
Attacks by lions are generally rare and those by male members of the species are rarer still since there are more female lions in the population. It is therefore important for the elephants to be able to distinguish between male and female lion roars.
The researchers concluded that elephants were likely to grow to a ripe old age before possessing the mental skill and experience necessary in order to deal with the threat of predators.