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Treasured Elephant Grandmothers

22 Jan 2020 | By Author Thornybush | Wildlife

I think it is safe to say, and most will agree that grannies are grand, and now scientists have found a deeper element to the roles these wonderful providers of love, wisdom and warm, fuzzy feelings play.

Researchers have discovered that African elephants also love their grannies and that these older females play a vital role in ensuring the survival of youngsters and the herd in general.

Mother elephants rely on granny to keep a watchful eye on baby while their backs are turned, or when they need a break, much like human moms do.

Granny has a far greater role to play in the herd apart from babysitter

Elephant herds generally consist of related cows and juvenile males. These bands of sisters are led by a dominant female, known as the matriarch, who is usually the mother or grandmother of all the animals in her herd.

When the matriarch dies, the next oldest daughter takes her place. Sometimes one of the older daughters turns out to be a better leader than the reigning monarch, in which case the old girl simply steps down and allows her dominant daughter to take over.

In her leadership role, the matriarch is responsible for the welfare of the herd. Elephants can live an exceptionally long life and as most people know, an elephant never forgets. Thanks to her years of experience, the grandmother is able to lead her group to the premier grazing and the best waterholes. She also knows what to do when the proverbial “hits the fan”, and the herd look to her for guidance, comfort and protection.

During hard times, the matriarch may instruct her eldest daughters to break away from the herd in order to lessen the load on a particular area – but they always regroup in times of plenty.

Calves with grandmothers have a better chance of survival

Similar to humans, the matriarch provides reassurance to first-time mothers at the birth of her grandchildren, and is always around to show the new-mom how it is done. Having a mother around to share the load of ‘mothering’ also means that a female is more likely to reproduce sooner and that the grandmother will care for more calves while she is alive.

Infant elephants have minimal survival skills and are taught everything they know by their mothers, aunts and grandmother. Studies and research have shown that calf survival is much higher when there is a female grand-elephant present, which also explains the high mortality rate of elephant babies in captivity.

It’s always interesting to try and identify the matriarch when you come across a herd of elephants on a game drive. Be sure to ask your ranger to confirm your guess.
(Hint – she’ll be the big bossy one in front!)