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African Elephants (Loxodonta africana and L. cyclotis) Fact Sheet: Reproduction & Development

Courtship

Sexual behavior/courtship

  • Bulls sniff and taste urine of cows
    • Males examine excretory products for the presence of sex pheromone
    • Transfer a sample with their trunk to the vomeronasal organ on roof of their mouth
  • Females alters behavior to signal males of reproductive receptivity
    • Estrus females signal their location to bulls a few kilometers away with a series of loud, very low frequency calls
    • Females exhibit a typical "estrous walk"; male display a characteristic "musth walk" (Sukumar 2003)
    • Cow backs up to the bull allowing confirmation of estrus

Mate preference

  • Females prefer large bulls, in their prime
    • Bulls typically 40-50 years old

Bulls aggresive during musth

  • A period of heightened sexual and aggressive activity in bulls
    • Each male comes into musth at a specific time each year (varies from male to male)
      • Typically lasts 6-12 weeks, but year-long musth periods have been recorded
        • Secretions are produced from swollen temporal glands
        • Urine dribbles from greenish-appearing penis
        • Frequent mating calls are made
      • Bulls in the depths of musth are often anorexic
      • Although estrous females prefer large musth bulls in their prime they are frequently bad breeders because of over-aggressiveness

Reproduction

Year-round reproduction

  • Matings and births occur throughout the year
    • Reproduction may be associated with rainfall

Estrus cycle of cow is unusually long

  • 13-16 weeks
    • Luteal phase 9-12 weeks
    • Follicular phase 3-5 weeks
  • Ovulation lasts about 4 days

Gestation and Birth

Gestation

  • Averages 22 months

Birth

  • Timing of parturition
    • Most frequent during rains
  • Litter size
    • Usually one
    • Twins are rare
  • Neonate size and appearance
    • Weight: 90-120 kg (198-265 lb)
    • Height: 80-100 cm (2'8" - 3'3")
    • Nearly blind
      • Entirely dependent upon mother and family relatives

Interbirth interval

  • 4-6 year calving interval is common
    • May last 10 years

Reproductive Rate

  • Lifetime reproductive output
    • A female can produce 7 offspring in her life
      • Oldest confirmed conception: 36 years
      • Food availability and population density influence the frequency of birth

Life Stages

Infant (< 1 year old)

  • Development
    • 1st three months spent developing motor skills
    • 3-4 months begin to feed on their own
    • Young elephants have deciduous tusks (tushes)
    • Tushes are replaced by permanent tusks between 6 months-1 year (Fowler 1993)
    • Weaning 2-3 years
      • Calf's nursing inhibits mother's estrus
    • Developmental patterns similar for both sexes until age 10

Adults

  • Sexual maturity
    • Males
      • In the wild, males capable of reproduction c. 12-15 years though they typically do not breed until their mid to late 20s
      • First reproduce c. 7 years of age in managed care
    • Females
      • In the wild, 10-11 years in the wild
      • First reproduce c. 6 years of age in managed care
  • Growth
    • Unlike other mammals elephants grow continuously
      • Female growth slows considerably after 25 years; c. 2,800 kg (6,173 lb)
      • Male growth slows by 50-60 years; c. 5,000 kg (11,023 lb)
  • Value of old individuals
    • Older female matriarchs impart invaluable knowledge and survival skills to herd

Longevity

In the wild (Lee et al. 2012, 2016)

  • Little known; most estimates speculative
  • For females of a population in southern Kenya
    • Females which live past 9 years old live about 40 years, on average
    • 95% mortality by age 65
    • Maximum lifespan of a wild female in this population: 74 years
  • Median age of males: about 30 years

In managed care (ZIMS 2017)

  • Commonly live to 40-early 50s
    • Limited data compared to Asian elephants; will likely learn more with additional data (Wiese and Willis 2004)
  • Oldest individual reported in ZIMS (data with high rigor; as of 2017): 56 years old (female)
    • Longer longevity sometimes reported, but this needs corroboration

Comparing wild vs. managed care

  • Maximum life expectancy similar, but average/typical life expectancy longer in the wild (Wiese and Willis 2004)

Mortality

Predators

  • Predatory animals work in groups to target elephants
    • A group of lions may attack and kill young elephants

Accidents and natural disasters

  • Accidental deaths
    • Accidental slips and falls
    • Bulls killed during reproductive musth
  • Drought

Killed by humans

  • Humans kill elephants in defense of their crops
  • Poaching

Natural aging

  • Elephants can only live as long as their teeth support them
    • As each tooth is worn down, it passes to the front of the mouth and falls out to be replaced by the next in line
    • When the last tooth is used, the elephant is unable to chew its food properly
    • Can use softer vegetation in swamps for a time

African elephants at SDZ Safari Park

African elephant calf with family

African elephant calf with family.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

African elephant calf

African elephant calf.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Eltringham (1992)
Estes (1991)
Estes (1993)
Fowler (1993)
Moss (2000)
Sukumar (2003)
ZIMS (2017)

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