Female Elephants Fare Better With Grandma Around

An orphaned baby elephant in Nairobi plays with the hand of a caretaker. New research shows baby elephants are more likely to survive infancy with living grandmothers an active part of their herd. Radu Sigheti/Reuters

Turns out grannies are very important to baby ellies. New research conducted over four decades in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park shows that female elephants with a living mother have better chances at reproduction and give birth to babies more likely to survive.

Elephants, humans and whales share a rare trait among mammals: a life span of 70 to 100-plus years. For elephants, there are trickle-down herd health impacts as a result of this longevity: University of Stirling researchers found that the longer female elephants live, the better off their offspring are. The team, led by behavioral psychologist Phyllis Lee, learned that not only do daughters of long-lived elephant mothers live longer themselves, but that grandbaby elephants are more likely to survive with a grandmother around. The study was published in the February 17 issue of Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

Since the ongoing study began 42 years ago in and around the 350-square mile protected area in southern Kenya, researchers watched more than 3,000 elephants and got to know 60 elephant families, which they observed two to three times a month. The paper presents and analyzes data on 834 wild female African elephants from these families, in an effort to determine whether daughters who have mothers around experienced greater longevity and whether they had more success producing offspring.

Daughters with a mother that survived for at least her first nine years of life lived nearly 10 years longer than those who lost their mothers before turning nine. The researchers also found that it’s uncommon for grandmothers to quit reproducing once their daughters become mothers. Only 10 of 281 grandmothers survived for more than 10 years without giving birth to a calf themselves while their daughters were also reproducing. Because female elephants can become pregnant into older age, Lee’s team often witnessed three generations of mother-daughter pairs reproducing simultaneously in large families. This was found to be critical to the survival of newborn calves, which benefit from the protection and social cohesion grandmothers provide a herd.

“We didn't think our study would find a very positive relationship between having a grandmother present and how well the daughters were doing in terms of their reproduction,” Lee says. But they found that “having an experienced mother, one who knows how to respond to their calf's demands and how to keep them close by, makes a huge difference in whether a baby elephant survives—having a grandma adds much needed extra help.”