It is always exciting to recognize natural behaviors in zoo animals, such as our African elephant herd at the Wild Animal Park. Although our elephants live in Southern California, rather than Africa, they still display behaviors that they would use in the wild. I observed such behavior last week and would like to share with you.
As some of you have seen and commented, wild mule deer will occasionally wander in and out of the elephant enclosure. This is not a concern because the interactions between the animals are friendly, and they mostly pay little attention to one another. However, one morning, a deer crept close to little Khosi without her noticing. Boy, was she surprised! When she turned around and saw the deer, she gave a “trumpet” alarm, which sounds much like the instrument it is named after (see blog Elephant Herd Welcomes New Baby). She also “charged” at the deer, running toward it with her ears spread wide. This is a behavior seen in the wild when elephants are warding off predators such as lions. Most of the time a charge is just for show and the elephant will stop short while running and wait for the predator to retreat. In this case Khosi’s strategy was effective and the deer quickly turned and ran out of the yard.
However, this was not the end of the story for the elephants. When Khosi sounded the trumpet, all of the other animals became alert to the situation. Khosi’s mother, Umngani, responded with a trumpet call of her own as well as a low rumbling call. These served as a signal to the rest of the adult females, and Ndula, Samba, Lungile, and Swazi quickly gathered near Khosi and Umngani. Punga and Kamile were not left far behind, as they knew what these calls mean and they hurried to be with their mothers and aunts. Once together, our herd created a “defensive circle” in which the females form a circle with their backsides in the middle and fronts facing outward with the calves tucked inside the circle for protection. They look like the old western covered wagons when they form a circle while under attack. The females continued rumbling while holding their heads high and ears spread out to be on the watch for danger. They held their position for a few minutes until it was presumed safe to disperse and continue their daily morning activities about the yard.
The deer was no threat to the herd, and it seems most likely that the adult females were not aware of why Khosi had trumpeted. However, they responded to her alarm anyway. Because our herd does not have to worry about predators, you may think that they would eliminate such protective and defensive behavior, but it is very instinctual. It seems our moms are protecting their calves with the same seriousness as their wild relatives in Africa, and they are doing a great job!
Emily Rothwell is a Heller Fellow Research Associate with the San Diego Zoo’s Behavioral Biology Division.
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