Elephant personalities revealed by scientists

Posted: November 1, 2012 by phaedrap1 in News, Science

Elephants have four distinct personalities that help their herd survive in the African bush, scientists have found.

African elephant and calf: Researchers found that some elephants had more gentle personalities

Researchers found that some elephants had more gentle personalities Photo: Burrard-Lucas / Barcroft Media

 With their grey skin, mournful eyes and slow plodding gait, you could be forgiven for thinking elephants are uniformly melancholy creatures.

But scientists have now discovered the largest living land animals have personalities to match their size.

In a new study of African elephants, researchers have identified four distinct characters that are prevalent with a herd – the leaders, the gentle giants, the playful rogues and the reliable plodders.

Each of the types has developed to help the giant mammals survive in their harsh environment and are almost unique in the animal kingdom, according to the scientists.

“Each individual in a group has a very different personality type,” said Professor Phyllis Lee, a behavioural psychologist at University of Stirling and chair of the scientific advisory committee for the Amboseli Trust for Elephants.

“It is the ability to influence others and sustain friendships are important to an elephant group, while in other animals it is often aggression or dominance.”

Professor Lee and her colleague Cynthia Moss studied a herd of elephants in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya known as the EB family – famous for their matriarch Echo before she died in 2009.

Using data collected over 38 years of watching this group, the researchers analysed them for 26 types of behaviour and found four personality traits tended to come to the fore.

The strongest personality to emerge was that of the leader. The researchers, whose work is published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, looked for those elephants that tended to influence the movements and direction of the group.

They also looked for the elephants that produced the most deep calls known as “let’s go” rumbles, which the animals use when started to move as a herd.

Unlike other animals, where leadership tends to be won by the most dominant and aggressive individual, the elephants instead respected intelligence and problem solving in their leader.

Professor Lee said: “This is something that is particularly unusual in animals. Normally dominance is the main element in leadership in dogs, macaques, chimpanzees and many more. What we find in elephants is it more about their ability to get agreement.

“Leadership is not equal to power or assertion in elephants, but illustrates the respect accorded to individuals as a function of their problem-solving ability and their social permissiveness.”

Echo, the matriarch and oldest in the group, her daughter Enid, and Ella, the second oldest female, all emerged as leaders.

The playful elephants tended to be younger but were more curious and active. Eudora, a 40-year-old female in the herd, seemed to be the most playful, consistently showing this trait through out her life while playfulness in some of the other elephants declined with age.

Gentle elephants, which included two 27-year-old females Eleanor and Eliot, caressed and rubbed against others more than the others.

Those that were reliable tended to be those that were most consistent at making good decisions, helped to care for infants in the herd and were calm when faced with threats. Echo and her youngest daughter Ebony seemed to be the most reliable.

Professor Lee said that elephants with these traits tended to be the most socially integrated in the group while those who tended to be less reliable and pushy were more likely to split from the herd.

She said that less integrated elephants also tended to produce fewer calves, suggesting that personality could determine reproductive success.

The researchers now hope to study other elephant groups and male elephants to see if any other personality characteristics emerge.

Professor Lee said: “We have only looked at one elephant group so we intend to look at other elephant groups that are less successful to see if there are other personalities that are causing this. We really don’t know much about the personality types in males yet either.

“Males develop strong friendships and older males tend to mentor younger ones, who follow them and learn from them.”


The Telegraph

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