Social support helps orphaned elephants ‘cope’

Orphaned young elephants appear to benefit, physically and measurably, from the “support” of other young elephants.

This idea comes from a study that looked at stress hormones in elephants who had lost their mothers.

The goal was to calculate the physical impact of that loss over a long period.

Elephants with more “friends” of similar age in their group had lower levels of the stress hormone.

The findings suggest that this “social support” could reduce the stress caused by the loss of a mother in these intelligent and highly social animals. As the scientists put it in their research paper: Social relationships have physiological impacts.

The research was led by Jenna Parker, an ecologist at Colorado State University. “If you’re out in the field watching elephants, you can see that family life is everything,” she told BBC News. “Calves are never more than ten meters from their mother until they are about eight or nine years old.

“And if some of the elephants [in a group] go, you will hear them calling to each other. They want to know where other people are all the time.”

The sad underpinning of this study is that, between 2009 and 2013, there was a marked increase in ivory poaching in the two Kenyan reserves where this study was conducted. He orphaned many young elephants. Research by the same group revealed the social consequences of that: Calves that lost their mothers generally faced more aggression from other elephants in their group.

“I wanted to follow up on that and see what happens physiologically with these orphans,” said Dr. Parker.

To carry out her measurements, the researcher followed groups of African elephants for more than a year. In fact, she had to watch and wait for each individual she was studying to poop, so she could get a dung sample for analysis.

“You can be surrounded by elephants all day, but you have to have your binoculars and really keep an eye on their rear ends and their tails to make sure you have the right individual,” he explained.

With this careful monitoring and dung sampling, she and her colleagues were able to study 25 orphaned African elephants, all of whom had lost their mothers between one and 19 years earlier. She also studied 12 non-orphaned elephants of similar ages.

A key finding that puzzled the scientists was that there was little difference between orphans and non-orphans in terms of signs of long-term stress.

“Our study was done two years or more after a mother’s death, so we can’t say anything about short-term differences,” explained Dr. Parker. “But in the long term, we didn’t see any differences, which is really good because it shows that these orphans maybe have some resilience.”

That resilience seemed to be directly related to social support from other elephants; those animals with more peers of similar age in their group had significantly lower levels of the stress hormone than others.

powerful ties

The study also highlighted some strange parallels between humans and elephants, at least in terms of these physiological signs of stress.

The research, conducted more than a decade ago on children orphaned by AIDS in South Africa, revealed that orphaned children who had a strong level of social support from family and peers were less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, one of the symptoms of which is abnormal stress hormone levels.

“And what we seem to find in elephants is that those with their family and social support maintain a more normal life. [stress hormone] long-term levels,” explained Dr. Parker.

“I think it’s really cool that such a social animal has evolved so far apart from humans, and that we still seem to converge on the importance of social bonds.”

In terms of conserving these threatened animals, the researchers say conservationists should think about this crucial social structure, because this elephant-to-elephant support could help them adapt to the myriad other threats they face.

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