Elephants’ natural social relationships radiate out from the mother-offspring bond, through extended family, bond group, clan, population and beyond to strangers. Their social network is unusually large and complex compared to most terrestrial mammals. Elephants have evolved physical and behavioral traits and mental and emotional capacities for thriving in a rich social world.
We deprive elephants and harm their emotional well being when we deny them access to a range of social partners; our treatment of elephants should recognize and protect their highly social character.
- Elephants live in an extensive social network, with relationships radiating out from the mother-offspring bond through members of a family, bond group, clan, sub-population, to independent adult males, and even beyond the population to strangers. Even in African forest elephants where social organization seems to be simpler, the smaller family groups still interact with each other regularly.
- Elephant society is fluid, multi-tiered, and characterized by group fission and fusion; group membership changes frequently, forming and dividing along lines that may be predicated on the basis of genetic relatedness, close social bonds, home range, season and, in the case of males, their sexual state.
- The combination of close and enduring cooperative social relationships and fission-fusion sociality is found only in elephants, in a few primates, including chimpanzees and humans, in some cetaceans, and in a few cooperatively hunting carnivores. Elephants hold knowledge and memories of others even when they have been separated for many years.
- A complex network of bonds between individuals and families characterizes the lives of females and their offspring. Elephant families are composed of a discrete, predictable composition of individuals, but over the course of hours or days these groups may temporarily separate and reunite, or they may mingle with other social groups to form temporarily larger social units.
- The dynamic activities, association and relationships of males are more fluid and are dramatically affected by annual sexual cycles. Relationships between sexually inactive males are typically friendly, while those between sexually active males, particularly those in musth, may be highly aggressive and combative.
- Intricate acoustic, visual, tactile, chemical and seismic communication are important components in the functioning of this complex society.
- The evolution of long-distance communication and long-term spatial and social memory facilitate the functioning of the elephants’ complex fission-fusion society. Elephants use their acute sense of smell and their sensitivity to low frequency sound to locate distant mates, to relocate separated family members, to avoid predators, including humans, or elephant groups they do not wish to meet, to locate previously used routes, to detect imminent earthquakes, and to position distant rainstorms.
- Elephants are familiar with the voices of as many as 100 other elephants and social recognition is possible at distances of up to 2.5 km. Under certain conditions elephants can hear the calls of conspecifics at distances exceeding 10 km.