Elephant Manners

Posted at 12:28 pm July 9, 2010 by Curtis Lehman

Swazi's son, born April 2010

In my last post, Umoya’s Calf, I mentioned that due to the social hierarchy within the African elephant herd at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, the newest elephant calf, born May 12, 2010, to Umoya, has learned to “watch his step” around Swazi. Let me explain:

All the calves have to learn and establish their social rank in the herd, just as they would in the wild. Since Umoya is the second-ranked female, her calf benefits from his mother’s rank as long as she is nearby. Since Swazi is the top-ranked female, she doesn’t have to be submissive to any of the other females or their calves. Umoya’s calf is learning that around Swazi in particular, there is a submissive way to approach her, and there is the wrong way to approach her. He’s learning that the wrong way to approach her is head-on and that he should get out of her way when she’s moving about.

A submissive posture for an elephant is to turn around and back in toward the more dominant elephant as if “asking permission” to be in the dominant elephant’s space. It also appears to me that when the submissive elephant is startled by a situation that involves one or more dominant elephants, they will not only turn around, but they’ll vocalize and urinate as if to punctuate that they’re being submissive. It’s almost as if they’re saying, “Sorry, sorry, it wasn’t me, I’m sorry!”

Each encounter that I’ve observed has its own subtle nuances. Depending on which animals are involved and the situation, it gives me new angles in which to deduct its meaning. Someone else may interpret it differently as well. It’s all very fascinating to observe!

Curtis Lehman is an animal care supervisor at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park.

Watch the Park’s elephants daily on Elephant Cam!

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14 Responses to “Elephant Manners”

  1. Colleen R says:

    Thank you so much for the updates. It is such a special treat to read about the elephants. I have always felt badly that the caregivers have been too busy to provide much information and the posts have been few and far between. I think these 3 beautiful babies will develop a following to rival our adorable baby panda.

    Thanks again for the posts. Please please keep them coming!!

  2. Mae was from NJ says:

    We would never know about these subtle nuances of behavior and structure of elephant hierarchy if not for these blogs! Thank you for sharing your valuable observations with your ardent fans.

    How does Swazi “teach” Umoya’s son the proper behavior around her? What is Umoya’s reaction?

  3. Don Stillwell says:

    And Swazi’s the mother that when asked to get her son says: Who’s that? This is a really great blog, Curtis. As always, very informative.

  4. deb says:

    One day I was watching and I saw Swazi act extremely aggressive towards one of the babies. She knocked him down pretty hard twice with her trunk. I held my breath because I have seen elephants get injured as a result of a knock down. However, the little pooper proved to be very durable and bounced right back up. Also, Africans may urinate when they are startled, but they also urinate when they are happy to see each other. Let’s just say they love to urinate.

  5. Karen of Chandler says:

    I did not know this. Thank you for writing this blog Curtis. Now when watching elephant cam and this happens I will know about this.

  6. Teresa says:

    Thank You for a great blog. It is so interesting when we hear about the way elephants behave towards one another. Does Swazi son have to have manners too towards other elephants or because his mom is top ranking felmale does he benefit from it too?

  7. Dianna from Ohio says:

    Hi Curtis,

    Thank you for answering the question. Hierarchy is present in all species and I find it very interesting how the animals behave towards the ones at the top of the totem pole and vice versa. As it happens with most posts, one question leads to another and the other bloggers have some great ones that I’ll be interested in your response… Guess there will be a “Hierarchy: Part 2” to look forward to. 🙂

    I’ll be sure to look for the behaviors described above and when I visit, I’ll try to figure out who Swazi is by the posturing…

  8. Margaret in VA says:

    Thanks, Curtis for very informative and highly educational information. New insights into the elephants’ world are always a welcome treat.

  9. Karen says:

    Ditto to all of the above! It is fascinating stuff, I couldn’t love these web cams anymore. Watching the elephants having fun swimming today and with no AC at my house, made me jealous. 🙂 Next weekend it’s off to the pool!

    Thanks again, Karen

  10. Carole in San Diego says:

    There is nothing more interesting than learning about these magnificent creatures’ behaviors. A few days ago the San Diego Union Tribune reported that visitors to the WAP observed the elephants’ reaction to the July 7 earthquake. They were described as running to the top of a hill within the enclosure circling the calves with their ears extended. This activity was called a “storm response.” I would love to hear more on that subject.

  11. Susan Balcuns says:

    I JUST can’t praise you guys enough for the cam shots that you do! I was just watching 2 babies playing king of the hill and it was wonderful!!!!! You capture every moment that means SOOOOO much to us all! We all love you!!! Oh! Is there a pregnant elephant? One seems to have a pretty low belly. How long do elephants carry their young? Of course, if the elephant was just “fat” I might get a swipe from the trunk for being so insensitive or for assuming!
    Thank you!!!!!! For ALL the joy you bring us!!!!!
    Susan

    Moderator’s note: Elephant gestation is 21 to 22 months.

  12. Diana S. says:

    Thank you Curtis for another great blog entry! I just love hearing about the interactions of the ellies. We’ll look forward to more!

  13. Don Stillwell says:

    For newcomers to the Wild Animal Park blogs, starting on 9-11-2006, the first set of Mabu’s offspring, a set of 3 babies, started with the birth of a girl, Khosi, to Umngani. On 3-11-2007, the first son, Punga, was born to Samba, and on 9-19-2007, Moya delivered a daughter, Kami, producing the first set of 3 musketeers, 2 girls and one boy. These are the 3 “teenagers” that are seen in the yard and field. On Friday, 3-13-2009, Umgani gave birth to a son, Ingadze, who was 11 months old when the current set of 3 baby boys first appeared on the scene on Valentine’s Day, 2-14-2010.

  14. rita says:

    One adult female, Moya (?}, has something hanging around her neck. What is it?

    Elephant Team responds: The collars are back on some of the elephants as we develop and test new GPS and audio recording technology to learn more about elephant behavior from our Wild Animal Park herd. Such study is also related to our plans to use the same equipment on African elephants in Botswana, where our field research is being done. A Behavioral Biology Division research student will study the individual elephants’ behaviors and relate her findings to the GPS and audio data produced by the collars. She’ll be providing a blog post to further explain her research.