Here at Tsavo Trust, we’ve been privileged to witness the world’s largest terrestrial mammals engaging in their complex and fascinating mating rituals. African elephants, despite their massive size, have a carefully orchestrated process leading to the birth of new generations. In this article, we’ll explore their courtship customs, oestrous cycles, and the intriguing chemical communication that governs mating among these majestic creatures.
African elephants, encompassing both forest and savannah species, share similar energy-intensive, breeding strategies. Their reproductive rates are amongst the slowest in the animal kingdom, with a modest reproduction rate of approximately 6 percent under optimal conditions. Its important to note that elephants do not rush into parenthood; they reach sexual maturity between the ages of 14 and 17, with successful mating often occurring much later, around 35 years old.
The Oestrus Cycle
The courtship of elephants is a nuanced process that unfolds over a three-week window of female reproductive receptivity, known as the oestrus cycle. However, the actual opportunity for conception is limited to a brief three to five days within this period. During these days, females display heightened reproductive interest, often demonstrated by increased enthusiasm upon encountering a musth bull.
Their behaviour includes an ‘oestrous walk,’ characterized by a raised head and frequent glances over their shoulders, accompanied by vocalizations that can carry over several kilometres. Interestingly, elephants possess one of the longest oestrous cycles, amongst non-seasonal mammals, spanning 13 to 18 weeks. While the complexity of their reproductive timing hints at a potential seasonal pattern, it’s notable that wild African elephants primarily conceive during the rainy season.
Elephants rely on their keen sense of smell to assess each other’s reproductive status. With seven to nine turbinals specialized for olfaction (far surpassing the human capacity), they can detect airborne hormones when a female is in oestrus or a male is in musth. This olfactory information is relayed to the Jacobson’s organ in the mouth’s upper palate for analysis. Additionally, hormones can be directly detected from urine and faeces. Once a bull elephant in musth detects the scent of a female in oestrus, they can travel great distances, often neglecting to stop and feed, to find the female.
Musth and Mating Behaviour
Musth, a period of heightened testosterone-fuelled sexual activity, significantly influences male elephant behaviour. It showcases a dual nature, encompassing heightened sexual behaviour and virility alongside increased aggression, which occasionally leads to confrontations with other males. The duration of musth varies with age, ranging from brief bouts in younger males to extended periods in older ones, significantly impacting the male hierarchy.
Competition and Consorts
The competition for potential mates revolves around contests of strength, involving pushing, tusking, wrestling, and ramming. These encounters ultimately culminate in one bull asserting dominance, while the weaker counterpart concedes mating rights to the female. Fortunately, these mating contests rarely escalate into brutal combat, as they serve as rapid assessments of virility and strength.
Mating Behaviour and Consorts
The mating process can be brief, lasting anywhere from a few hours to four days. After mating, males typically stay with the female to deter competitors. Intriguingly, female behaviour evolves as they mature. Older females prefer large musth males and actively avoid others, whereas young females initially lack these selective behaviours, leading to multiple mountings by younger males. With time, they learn to favour older, larger, and more experienced mates.
The Intriguing Phenomenon of False Oestrus
A long-term study of wild African elephants has uncovered a captivating facet of their reproductive behaviour. It appears that mature females sometimes engage in what can be termed as ‘simulated’ or ‘false’ oestrus behaviours, particularly when their young, nulliparous female relatives enter their own oestrus cycles. These behaviours involve mature females mimicking the visual and behavioural signals of oestrus, even when they are unlikely to be ovulating themselves. They engage in activities such as approaching and avoiding males, joining their young relatives in chases during mating pursuits, and occasionally emitting post-copulatory calls after the young female has mated.
To shed light on this intriguing phenomenon, a study conducted in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, meticulously analysed the occurrence of these simulated oestrus events. The research aims to pinpoint when parous female elephants are most likely to exhibit such behaviour and evaluate various hypotheses to decipher its underlying purpose. Potential explanations explored include whether simulated oestrus serves no functional purpose, enhances the reproductive success of the simulating female, or contributes to the inclusive fitness of the simulating female. This intriguing behaviour adds yet another layer of complexity to the already captivating world of elephant reproduction.
Elephant mating is a complex and awe-inspiring process. As we look into the intricacies of their courtship, oestrous cycles, and chemical communication, we gain a deeper appreciation for these remarkable creatures. Preserving the future of African elephants means safeguarding not only their majestic presence but also the intricate and captivating behaviours that define their existence.