Much of elephant behavior is acquired through interaction with others, and social learning plays an essential role in the development and maintenance of elephant social complexity.
We harm and deprive elephants when through interventive management practices we deny them the opportunity for social learning; we must allow elephants to acquire the full range of elephant behavior in a normal social context.
- Young elephants learn normal behavior in a social context, and social learning plays a crucial role in their social development. Calves follow their mothers' social responses to learn who are their relatives and friends, and who represents potential threats; they rely on their social companions to learn appropriate behavioral responses to others. Calves gradually acquire foraging knowledge by sampling what the adults around them are eating.
- Juvenile females learn vital care-taking skills through allomothering; contact with other juveniles and infants and their mothers during care-taking provides experience in rearing calves, essential to subsequent reproduction and non-abusive care of infants.
- Some behaviors essential to mating behavior and mate choice appear to require a social context for learning. The acquisition of estrous behaviors, and the choice of mates, are facilitated by the presence and behavior of mothers, who are often observed exhibiting estrous postures and behaviors around their first-time estrous daughters when not in estrus themselves. Young females appear to have to learn how to behave during estrus, through experience and by watching the behavior of older females.
- Mothers may be observed to approach or to avoid males, to run with their first-time estrous daughters during long chases, and occasionally to make post-copulatory calls after the young female is mated.
- The behavior of mothers and daughters during a daughter’s first estrous period indicates the importance of a social context for learning, and suggests that mother elephants may be engaged in a rudimentary form of teaching.
- Young male elephants are often observed to follow older musth males, testing the same urine spots and females that they do, and observing the subtle maneuvering of males around an estrous female. The successful mating by males of estrous females requires considerable skill, some of which may be gained through watching the behavior of older, more experienced males.
- Social learning plays an important role in elephants’ use and modification of simple tools.
- Elephants are capable of imitating sounds, or vocal learning, an ability that is a precursor for language. Such imitation is an important element in their flexible and open vocal repertoire.
- Social learning is displayed in the acquisition of cultural practices, such as the killing of livestock, the dismantling of electric fences, and the mining of salt licks.
- The absence of role models for social learning may contribute to the acquisition of inappropriate behavior, such as aggression by males toward females and calves, as has been observed in captivity, or mounting, tusking, and killing of other animals, as has been observed in free-ranging orphaned males.