Elephants are one of earth's most remarkable and complex animals, but not everyone stops to consider the ways elephants are very human. They are highly intelligent creatures that exist in highly developed familial societies. Elephant social structures are full of rich relationships and interactions, which could lead some people to ask themselves, "are elephants more complex than humans?"
It's a tough question to answer, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that elephant social lives are as complex as our own. In some ways they are even more complex, and it's important to take into account the importance of their relationships whenever discussing conservation. These creatures form lifelong bonds with each other, work together to solve issues, and even comfort each other when things aren't going well, or when one of their own dies. They are highly intelligent, and some would even go as far to say that they have empathy for each other. Who knows, maybe studying these wonderful giants could teach us a thing or two about the inner workings of our own social lives.
While humans have the luxury of texting or calling each other on the phone, elephants have developed a natural mechanism of communicating over long distances - without the help of technology. There are a number of ways that elephants communicate with each other, including trumpeting, roaring, and low rumbles. These different sounds have different meanings, and nearly 70 unique messages have been documented. Some of these messages can be heard in a range of 110 square miles.
These long range calls are actually made up of infrasound, a low frequency sound that is inaudible to the human ear. They even know at what times their sound will travel farthest, often waiting until dusk or dawn when the air is coolest. Lower temperatures allow sound to travel further, and the remarkable animals have figured out how to use that to their advantage.
Even in the most progressive cultures in the world, women often deal with challenges far greater than those of their male counterparts. For those women who wish to see a world where the patriarchy has been eliminated, they may be able to look toward their elephant sisters as role models.
Elephant society is dominated by the females, who travel together in close-knit family units. Males leave at puberty, so families only consist of females and children. They are led by a matriarch, most often the oldest member of the family, who is responsible for many decisions within the group. She decides where and when to find feed, as well as which other elephant families to stay in contact with. They also store a lifetime of information which can be incredibly valuable to the families survival.
Elephants can live about as long as humans, with some growing up to be over 70 years old in the wild. This means elephants can live to see multiple generations born, and grandmothers take an active role in the upbringing of their grandchildren.
Researchers from Finland set out to study the role grandmothers in Asian elephants and made some fascinating discoveries. Baby elephants who lived with their grandmothers experienced eight times the survival rate of those who did not. On top of that, the more calves a grandmother has herself, the more capable she is of raising her grandchildren. Basically, practice makes perfect and the more babies an elephant has, the better she will be with her grandchildren.
Bull males are known for spouts of intense aggression, possibly one of the reasons it seems males are driven out of family units when they hit puberty. But this could be a misconception. A cycle of male sexual aggression, known as musth, has led some to believe that elephant bulls are antisocial in general, and they spend most of their lives in solitude.
Research in the past few years has challenged these assumptions, stating that not all bachelors go it alone after they separate from their mothers. Some bachelors will get together in loose groups, often consisting of relatives, and engage in friendly activities like play-fighting. Scientists now believe that male elephants are almost as social as females.