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Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Activity Cycle

In a study of Asian Elephants at Lahugala Tank, males were recorded as having the following activity cycle

91.1% = Feeding
5.4% = Walking
1.4% = Resting
1.8% = Bathing
0.1% = Drinking
0.2% = All other activities


Another study at Lahagula Tank records the following activity cycle of solitary males

93.5% = Feeding
1.9% = Walking
0.3% = Contact promoting
3.3% = Play/Aggression
1.0% = All other activities

Female elephant herds spend 70-90% of time feeding.

Male activity shows one peak at around 8 am and another between 4-5 pm. Female herds peak around 10 am and then later between 3:30 and 6 pm.

In a study at Ceylon's Wilpattu National Park; individuals described as secretive and shy:

  • Feeding is intermittent during 24 hour period
  • Drinking is typically early evening and just before daybreak
  • Long distance travel usually accomplished at night

Territory Size

No evidence of territoriality

Home range size usually small, similar to African Elephants (approx. 14-52 sq.km)

  • Shifts locale with wet/dry season
  • Availability of resources (water, food, mates) and human presence all influence home range size

Female groups may overlap and coordinate migrations

Social Groups

Highly social animals with extremely complex behaviors; highly developed (Moss et al 2011):

  • Emphathetic behavior
  • Problem solving and tool use
  • Communications between individuals

A matriarch, typically the eldest female, heads a related group of females.

  • Study of female groups's genetics at Ruhuna National Park in Sri Lanka show all individuals related to a single female

Herds consist of about 8-12 individuals, but sizes can vary. (African Elephant groups: 10 to 20 individuals)
Life centers around the calves in both African and Asian elephant societies.
Females share equally in the care of the young.
Teenage males leave natal herd & often form bachelor groups 
Adult male typically described as solitary; no close bonds with other independent males; spend time in families only when following females in estrus

  • New studies show the males form loose associations

Hierarchy

  • Males in musth are dominant to nonmusth males
  • Teenage Asian elephants (15-20 years) go through a juvenile (moda) musth in which they secrete a sweet odor
    • Scent signals subordinate status, eliminating unnecessary conflict with older, dominant males.

Social Interactions

Aggression

  • Bulls in musth once or twice a year may display aggressive behavior
  • Having a male in musth decreases aggressive behavior of other males
  • Aggressive behaviors include: spreading ears; raising head with jaw "tucked in", mock charging, abrupt head shake which makes ears flap, throwing objects in direction of opponent
  • Elephant charge: up to 40 km/hr (25mph)

Play

  • Male calves are more likely to leave mothers to play; engage in head sparring, mounting, charging, shoving, and chasing
  • Female calves play chasing and running games, throw sticks, and may “attack” imaginary enemies
  • Both sexes play rough and tumble games, clamber onto each other

Communication

Click here for Asian Elephant sounds. Provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macaulay Library.

 

Vocal Cues

  • Large repertoire of vocalizations, including:
    • Low frequency, long distance calls to maintain contact between roving individuals or groups
    • Close range, high pitched calls indicate mood
    • Loud trumpeting indicates alarm, surprise
    • Low snorts signal changes in immediate environment, alerting herd

Tactile Cues

  • Family members often touch while standing; may rub with a foot or slap with the trunk
  • Trunks are used in greeting: A lower-ranking animal will insert its trunk tip into the other’s mouth
  • Trunk may be held out to an approaching elephant as a greeting
  • Trunk is also used in caressing, twining, wrestling, and checking reproductive status
  • Mothers may guide their calf by gripping its tail

Visual Cues

  • Signal for hormonal state:
    • Bull's musth walk - head erect, ears wide, ear waves of one ear, a low pulsing growl
    • Trunk curling and uncurling
    • Urine dribble
    • Cow's estrous walk - looking back over shoulder as walk away
  • Signals for apprehension/submission
    • Jaw out, touching one's own temporal gland or face
    • Trunk twitching back and forth
    • Swaying side to side
    • Backing into side of more dominant animal

Olfaction/Scent Marking

  • Rely heavily on long lasting chemical cues, which travel over short or long distances
  • Lift trunks to detect wind-borne scents for first clues to sources of danger
  • Survival depends on reading scents of landscapes, pathways, mineral and salt sources, waterholes
  • Even after long separations, chemical cues help reestablish kin and friendship bonds
    • Sniff breath, mouths, temporal glands, genitals, urine and dung to determine emotional and physiological states of others
      • Urine alone contains several thousand chemical compounds packed with messages
    • Sex pheromones allow determination of fitness and location of opposite sex

Other senses

  • Information from environment via low frequency ground vibrations may be first detected by elephant's feet and trunk tip
    • Distant thunderstorms, footsteps of running animals, vocalizations, that travel through ground

Locomotion

Move with one basic gait, known as the rack or pace (three feet are on the ground most of the time); one foot always on ground

Normal walking speed 2.5-3.7 mph (4-6 km/hr). Charging speed can reach 15.2 mph (6.8 meters/sec) (Hutchinson 2006)

Move very slowly while feeding, or walk quickly. Juveniles may run when playing, but adults only run in flight or attack.

Swim readily at rate of 1.3 mph (2 km/hr). Can stay afloat for up to 6 hours and cover distances of 30 miles (48 km) at a stretch

Can not jump; even a shallow ditch poses a barrier

Can not trot, canter, or gallop

Tool Use

  • May use branches and plant fronds to swat flies, dislodge parasites, scratch an itch
  • Known to drop boulders on fences to destroy them or to cut off electricity

Interspecies Interactions

Do not appear frightened by other animals; usually ignore them

Confrontations with Indian rhinoceros probably very rare in wild, but have occurred with domestic elephants that have been ridden into rhino's territory

Mutualistic relationship with some species of birds, such as egrets and piapiac.

  • Birds use elephants as a vantage point to spot prey; pick off ticks or lice attached to the elephant.

Host several parasites, including louse, warble flies, mosquitoes and leeches
Prodigious amounts of dung disperses many seeds and helps enrich soils

  • Dung beetles and termites carry dung underground

Like the African Elephant, function in role of ecosystem "engineer" and as a keystone species

  • Maintain trails and open access to water for other species
  • Create microhabitats by shredding trees for small vertebrate species such as lizards
  • Uproot small trees (which would invade open grassland areas, shifting habitat to new forests)
    • Enhances habitat for other grazing animals and their predators

Friendly Pairing of Species

Two elephants of different species meet

Two elephants of different species, Mila (left) and Mary (right), are meeting for the first time. Elephants use touch and smell to become acquainted and bond with each other.

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

Page Citations

Eltringham (1991)
Fernando and Lande (2000)
Hart et al (2001)
McKay (1973)
Moss (1990)
Moss et al (2011)
O'Connell-Rodwell (2001)
Payne & Langbauer (1992)
Poole (1996)
Pringle (2008)
Rasmussen and Krishnamurthy (2000)
Santipelli & Suprahman (1986)
Schulte (2006)
Shoshani & Eisenberg (1982)
Sukumar (1989)

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