Dr. Hannah Mumby is collaborating with Elephants Alive to improve our understanding of elephant bulls. She is spearheading some important data collection from three different angles:
Male elephant sociality
We’re monitoring the social relationships and behavior within groups of male elephants. Traditionally the male elephants were characterised as solitary and aggressive, but there is increasing evidence of bulls spending time in all-male groups, particularly outside of their musth period. We are observing male elephants, identifying all the individuals in groups and we will then analyse the social networks of frequently sighted males. This will give us lots of information, including where males associate together, what age their preferred partners are and which individuals are most central in the networks. We’ll be able to link this social data to lots of other aspects of Elephants Alive’s work, including tracking elephant movements.
We’re collecting non-invasive faecal samples to extract DNA for a relatedness study. This is important because the genetic relatedness underlying male social relationships isn’t clear and it’s really important to find out whether relatives are associating or whether male groups are composed of unrelated individuals. On the female side, we know family is very important!
The DNA database will be continuously added to so that we can start to identify fathers of calves- a very important data point because determining paternity can be difficult in elephants. We’ll investigate the age of fathers, reproductive skew in the population and proximity of fathers to the breeding herds their offspring are raised in.
DNA also gives us population-level information; allowing us to determine the diversity, subpopulations and evidence for expansions and contractions in the population size. It’s like going back in time!
We know elephants are social, but what about the communication within those groups? One important means of communication for elephants is vocalisations. We know in breeding herds, things can get pretty noisy, with a large range of calls from roars to rumbles being used. Less is known of male communication. The musth rumble is the best described vocalisation, but we know there is also evidence for contact calls. We’re recording these low-frequency rumbles within male groups with the aims of characterising the structure and function of the sounds. We’ll also test whether individuals exhibit distinctive vocalisations, just like our own voices are slightly different.