The Elephant Don
By Dr. Caitlin O'Connell
We return to zoology with another book about the most magnificent of living land mammals: the Elephant. I'll admit that part of this stems from my own interest in the animals. One of my earliest memories as a child was being at the zoo in Milwaukee, seeing my first elephant and being utterly convinced there could be nothing grander than one of these gray giants. I have been through a lot and seen a lot more in the decades since and I still think I may have had it right that day. Moving on, this is Dr. O'Connell's second book to appear in our series. For those who haven't read my review on her book “The Elephant's Secret Sense,” the good Doctor is a world renowned expert on elephants, an instructor at the Stanford University Medical School, consultant, founder of the non-profit Utopia Scientific (a science and education organization) and a writer of fiction and non-fiction. In short she is a very accomplished woman.
Elephant Don is one of her more recent books, published in 2015 and it challenges an orthodox belief about elephants. It has long been commonly believed that male elephants lived solitary lives, while elephant society was made up of the females and their calves. Female Elephant groups live in extended families often led by the oldest member who would decide where the herd went for food, water, and shelter on the rare events that an elephant might need shelter. While Male Elephant patrolled alone unless in Musth, which is a state where the production of testosterone rockets up, the elephant in question experiences physical changes and feels compelled to start looking for a female elephant ready to mate. In the meantime his aggression goes up and it's bad news for any other Male Elephant he encounters. This can be a bit of a quest; remember that elephant pregnancies last nearly two years. A nursing elephant won't mate, so elephants typically mate once every four or five years. Imagine waiting that long for your partner to feel in the mood!
In this book however, Dr. O'Connell documents a Male Elephant society that she calls the Boys Club. Within this Boy's Club we see coalitions, alliances. and friendships form change and adapt to changing situations. This strongly suggests that the old beliefs about the lives of Male Elephants may be very mistaken and need to be revisited, as she not only documented fairly intense interactions between Male Elephants of various ages but also clear evidence of a hierarchy and even leadership exercised by one male elephant specifically. The Boy's Club is observed by Dr. O'Connell at a watering hole, this is honestly the only practical way to do this as Elephants can a lot harder to track than you would think and can move fairly vast distances. That said, just about everything that lives on the land has to drink eventually and elephants more than most. So by tracking what elephants arrive at the water hole together, how they interact, along with things like who gets to drink the good water and who has to go over and drink the muddy water at the wrong end of the water hole, Dr. O'Connell is able to build a bit of a social map of the relations between the elephants and the changes that occur. This gets a little frustrating at times because she cannot track or follow the elephants into the bush, so we're often left wondering why these changes happened. This also touches on some of the problems with studying elephants, which is why less is known about them in the wild or their native capabilities then we would like sometimes. To risk pointing out the blindingly obvious, elephants are incredibly hard to contain and supply. Also there's the issue of how do you test a multi-ton animal's intelligence anyways? It's a bit too expensive to make them run a maze like we do smaller animals; but I'm wandering off point. Let me talk about the star character's that show up in this book, starting with the main character (if this book can be said to have one) Greg.
Greg is the Elephant that gives the book it's title. The regal and magnanimous Don of the water hole, who controls the Boy's Club. Greg is actually an interesting character here in that he doesn't rule completely through strength. Instead throughout the book, we find that Greg is actually fairly indulgent of the younger males (these would be ones who have most recently split off/been thrown out by their families, I'll talk about this more in a bit) often letting the youngest members come drink with him at the spots where the water is clearest and coldest. Additionally he often steps in to prevent bullying by older and larger males, which almost suggest that Greg is enforcing a code of conduct of sorts (I'd like to note that Dr. O'Connell doesn't suggest that, because being a good scientist she's not going to suggest something like that without a raft of evidence to back it up. I'm not a PhD though, I'm a book reviewer and not as constrained). Greg isn't a wimp however and demonstrates that he can back up his authority with the most basic foundation of power there is: the art of ass kicking.
We are actually introduced to Greg when the 3rd ranked Male Kevin goes into Musth, picks a fight with him and... Well... Kevin gets the testosterone beaten right out of him in a larger than life confrontation right there at the watering hole. We actually get to know Kevin quite a bit; he's a bully and if he was a human I would call him a braggart. He also acts as Greg's disciplinarian in a lot of ways, smacking down lower ranked males who step out of line. This also makes him unpopular with other elephants as he has problems socializing when Greg isn't there. On the flip side, his opposite number Mike, is Greg's number two elephant and Mike is a truly soft touch who prefers to avoid physical confrontation a bit too much. Even in Musth, Mike avoids violence with a dedication that would make Rev. King Jr. proud. These three are adult males in their prime and contrasting them we have a number of younger elephants in their teenage years (literally honestly as elephants tend not to hit their prime until their 20s) like the super confident and social Congo Connor, who shows up in the middle of the book and seems to be able to just charm his way into the society out of nowhere. There's also Keith, a younger elephant who while not as charming as Congo Connor is very favored by Greg and drives Kevin nuts in a lot of ways. The mystery of Keith caused Dr. O'Connell to start checking the DNA of the elephants involved via their dung. Yes that's right your dung has elements of your DNA in it and tests have been invented to determine just whose scat belongs to who. Interestingly enough while most of the full grown males weren't related, Keith was a 1st order relative to Greg (making him likely a son, or at least a nephew as I understand it, editor? )[Editor’s note: A first order relative is one who shares 50% of an individual’s genes. So in this case, a son, full sibling, or parent. In this case, given the age difference, most likely a son], others were found to be 2nd and 3rd order relatives[Editors note: These would be those sharing 25% or 12.5%, so half-siblings, cousins, nephews, and grandchildren at 2nd order, 2nd cousins etc at 3rd. Hi! I am an out-of-work biology Ph.D. Ask me how!]. Which means that Greg may be mentoring a number of cousins, sons, brothers and nephews... Which I think is a good place to discuss a bit of what is known about the Male Elephant's life cycle [Editors note: If this is the case, I would be fascinated to find out how they detect kinship, or they don’t, whether it is just a geographic bias. Big dominant males tend to father the offspring in a region and as a result the young males they wind up supervising just so happen to be their relatives. Interesting research question for aspiring mammal behaviorists. I am an insect behaviorist myself and my training is ill-suited.].
Male elephants as you may guess spend their childhoods living in the female controlled extended families that are the best known and studied parts of elephant life. They are raised by their mother's, older sisters, aunts and grandmothers. However as they get older and stronger, they grow in confidence and start pushing their boundaries and the authority of their elders. This leads to confrontations that can get rather violent until the teenage rebel either has enough and leaves or is tossed out. At this point the teens tend to go wandering until they find a territory they like and settle down. Now when I was growing up, it was often written that while male teen elephants will sometimes travel in a group, once they find a territory they turn solidarity until they grow old and die. Clearly this isn't the case, Dr. O'Connell herself cites a number of events that call this into question even without her own work. There was a case of a group of teenage elephants moving into a national park after the management was forced to enact a cull in their home range (this is sometimes necessary because of the sad fact that there's only so many elephants a patch of ground can support and elephants can no longer range freely over the continent like they once did. To prevent mass starvation, it's sometimes necessary to reduce the population). Rather than kill the selected elephants, they moved them to a park that had recently lost just about all it's adult males. The teens turned extremely aggressive and started killing rhinos, investigations have found that teen elephants experience a massive testosterone boost if there are no elder males in the area, higher than even Musth. To put it simply, the boys lacked any older authority figures and their bodies pumping them full of aggression enhancing hormones went berserk. These rhinos were also endangered so a this sparked a bit of panic, until someone brought in a male elephant in his prime, who swiftly brought the young hot heads under control. Additionally, the testosterone production in the teenage rogues plummeted This isn't an isolated incident either, as comparable events have been found in other parks in Africa. As someone with Anthropology training, it's interesting to note that you see something like this in human society. In societies that suffer a massive lost of adult men, you will often see teenage boys pushing the boundaries harder and faster than usual. This isn't to suggest women are less capable of exercising authority mind you, just that there are times when teenage boys are best served with an authority figure their own gender.[Editors Note: This is a thing common to just about any animal with a social hierarchy. Maybe not to the extent that it exists in elephants, and yes, humans count. When aggression determines one’s place in the pecking order and high-ranking spots are left open, young males clamour to fill them, often violently. However, young males also don’t know what they are doing, particularly in the more intelligent species that rely more on learning than fixed action patterns to regulate their behavior. You end up with relatively unchecked aggression. Put someone back in to assert dominance over them, and they start behaving. It is actually pretty interesting when this happens in baboons. The females tend to take over the social hierarchy and coalition together to keep the bullying alpha males out.]
As you might guess I really enjoyed reading the Elephant Don, now that said there may be parts that some people will find a bit dry. As Dr. O'Connell will explain various experiments and processes in some detail but this is cut with stories of life out in the African bush and the interactions of the elephants themselves. As well as the interactions of Hyenas, Lions, and a host of other animals. Irrespective of that, if you're interested in animal behavior, especially the behavior of social animals and willing to learn a few new terms, this is a great book. I'm giving the Elephant Don by Dr. Caitlin O'Connell an A. This is the good stuff guys. Next week we're gonna head back to fiction for a bit before jumping into some history books, as we review Twelve Kings in Sharakhai. Keep reading.
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.