Older elephants know the best anti-lion moves

By Ed Yong | March 15, 2011 8:00 pm

In natural history films, lionesses are usually portrayed as the hunters of the pride, while male lions mope around under shady trees. But males are no layabouts – they’re effective killers in their own right, particularly when they target larger prey like elephants and buffalo. Aside from humans, lions are the only predators powerful enough to kill an elephant. The males, being 50% heavier than the females, are especially suited to the task. It typically takes seven lionesses to kill an elephant, but just two males could do the same.

Even a single male can overpower a young elephant. Between 1994 and 1997, Dereck Joubert found that the lions of Botswana’s Chobe National Park were getting better and better at hunting elephants. He wrote: “In one notable case, a single male lion ran at nearly full speed into the side of a 6-year-old male calf with sufficient force to collapse the elephant on its side.”

Male lions clearly pose a great threat, and older elephants know it. Karen McComb from the University of Sussex has found that older matriarchs – the females who lead elephant herds – are more aware of the threat posed by male lions. If they hear recordings of male roars, they’re more likely to usher their herd into a defensive formation. Their experience and leadership could save their followers’ lives. “Family units led by older matriarchs are going to be in a position to make better decisions about predatory threats, which is likely to enhance the fitness of individuals within the group,” says McComb.

When lions hunt elephants, they usually target youngsters or females, and they almost always attack from behind. They circle round a straggler, jump onto its back and flanks (out of way of the trunk), and drag it to the ground. The never go for a frontal assault, so elephants can thwart their attacks by bunching together. The calves go in the middle; the adults face outwards in a formidable defensive ring of tusks and trunks.

McComb studied 39 groups of elephants at Amboseli National Park, including hundreds of animals who are all individually known. Approaching the herds in vehicles, she played the recorded roars of lions – either one or three, and either all males or all females. She filmed their responses (and asked an independent colleague to confirm her interpretations).

McComb’s videos showed that, unsurprisingly, the elephants responded more strongly to the roars of three lions than the sound of a singleton. The matriarch was more likely to raise her head and ears, and the others were more likely to quickly draw towards her in a tight huddle. All of the herds reacted in the same way, but only those with older leaders (60 years or more) twigged to the greater danger posed by the fake male roars. They were more likely to draw together, they did so more quickly, and they were even more likely to aggressively mob the lions.

The older the matriarchs were, the more sensitive they and their group were to the sound of male lions. They didn’t react in the same way to lionesses, so it wasn’t that they were becoming generally more panicky in their dotage.. Instead, they had become better at discerning the most dangerous roars.

Why does age matter? Male and female lions do have distinct roars, but humans only started to recognise the differences when we used recording equipment and computer software. It’s not surprising that an elephant would need a lifetime of experience to learn these subtle cues.

McComb says that this is the first experiment to show that older matriarchs can help elephant groups to make better decisions in the face of predators. That’s not the only contribution they make. In 2001, McComb showed that groups with older leaders were better at telling the difference between the calls of familiar elephants and those of strangers, and reacting appropriately. In 2008, Charles Foley has suggested that groups with older matriarchs are more likely to survive through drought, because their leaders know how best to find scarce resources and avoid predators.

And in 2007, Lucy King found that matriarchs might even help their herds to avoid getting stung. King showed that elephants will run away if they hear the sound of bees. In her experiments, only one group of elephants didn’t run away when it heard recordings of buzzing. The group was unusually small and young – it had no matriarch and the eldest individual was a 20-year-old male. It could be that none of the three elephants in the group had been stung themselves, and without an experienced leader, they didn’t know the right response.

Studies like these show that matriarchs hold a unique role in elephant society, and that their loss would be particularly damaging. Unfortunately, being among the biggest individuals, matriarchs are often inviting targets for human rifles. It can take minutes for a poacher to rob a group of elephants of a lifetime of accumulated knowledge and experience.

Reference: McComb, Shannon, Durant, Sayialel, Slotow, Poole & Moss. 2011. Leadership in elephants: the adaptive value of age. Proc Roy Soc B http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2011.0168If the citation link isn’t working, read why here

Image by Robek (lion) and McComb (elephant); video by McComb

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Comments (14)

  1. I totally forgot to mention this but Karen McComb was also responsible for this awesome study about manipulative cats. Love her research.

  2. Sam

    Really interesting. I don’t usually post but by coincidence I listened to Karen McComb in a lecture about two years ago when I studied at Sussex. We were developing a program which involved Artificial Intelligence and we sat in a psychology lecture regarding animal and human behaviour, fortunate considering I’m a computer Science Graduate. I didn’t ask any questions tho :(. I love pondering about the conciousness of intelligent animals, its quite humbling.


  3. Manipulative cats? No way.

  4. Charles Sullivan

    The big ones step forward. What a surprise.

  5. Charles Sullivan

    Which side are you on? Lion or Elephant? Inquiring minds want to know.

  6. Dan

    Why should elephants be different from any group. Survival skills usually equate with age in most species. Old age and treachery beats youth and skill and all that. In my pre-retirement line of work, the saying was that there were old helicopter pilots and bold helicopter pilots, but very few old, bold helicopter pilots.

    As to David’s questioning of manipulative cats, he has evidently never been owned by one.

  7. JRMorber

    When I see videos like these I tend to wonder what the animals make of the alarming sound without the presence of the alarming animal. Do they forget about it? Chalk it up to coincidence? If they are anything like us, the “voice of the invisible lion” becomes family folklore: “Be careful around those rocks Jimmy. One time I heard a lion’s roars but there was no lion. Something magical lives in those rocks.”

  8. “…and they were even more likely to aggressively mob the lions.” wait a minute! did I miss something? you didn’t mention real lions were involved, or did the elephants mob the “fake” lion jeeps?

  9. Robinson

    Dismaying! I’m appalled by this research, intruding into the elephants’ natural habitat, playing games with them and stoking their fear. And, to what purpose? To satisfy an idle curiosity and demonstrate something obvious.

    Let the researchers do naturalistic observations and earn their keep.

    The University of Sussex and London Zoo researchers–and the Royal Society that published their study– should be ashamed of themselves.

  10. I wonder if the male/female lion roars have become so familiar (at least to non lions) over the years because of the behavior of the elephants themselves. After all, the distinctly different gives easy early warning.

  11. Robinson LOL!! Excellent sarcastic post, but unfortunately most people won’t get it.
    I guess the answer would be to drug and kidnap several prides of lions, starve them for a few days to make sure they really, really wanted to eat elephant, then release several females near a herd of said elephants, check action, reaction. And do it again, and again, and again to get a significantly useful data base, oh better do it a few more times. Then do it with the males. Also the groups would have to be tried in various sizes. Again and again and again. Oh and a few more times too.

  12. Whelk

    “Aside from humans, lions are the only predators powerful enough to kill an elephant.”

    I dunno, I’m pretty sure an orca could take an elephant. =P

  13. 9th grade kid

    Hey Robinson I don’t mean to be offensive but a :) would help us realize that your being sarcastic because until Iain commented I thought i had no idea you were being sarcastic (you werent you?)

    [Poe’s Law – Ed]

  14. Sunshine

    To Charles Sullivan: I am a Leo, however I am for the elephant. I have a little white one in my living room. Nobody ever talks about him except to say “Hey, you have a white elephant!”. And get this, he gets along with my kitty cat, just fine . So to answer the question, I love both! I have Leo tendencies with matriarchal elephant wisdom!


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