Due to their enormous size, elephants have massive dietary requirements that keep them moving. New research from the University of Oxford focuses on the question of how elephants meet their needs with new babies in tow.
Interestingly, the research shows that the answer may lie in the incredibly long, 22-month gestation period. With such a long gestation period, babies are born remarkably well-developed and immediately able to tag along with the herd of larger and older elephants.
‘‘We speculate that this ability ‘to keep up’ may underpin why elephants have the longest gestation period [pregnancy] of any mammal in order to facilitate an advanced state of fetal physical development, and may have evolved to help elephant herds stay together,’’ said study lead author Dr. Lucy Taylor.
Elephants live in matriarchal societies, where aunts and other females may help mothers raise their young. Interestingly, different females may be pregnant at different times partly by design, making sure there are always enough helping trunks free at any given time for baby care.
To understand this dynamic, as well as movement patterns, the researchers tracked African savannah elephants with radio collars. The experts discovered that there’s really no pause in herd movement after new babies are born.
‘‘I find it remarkable that female elephants are pregnant for 22 months, give birth and then are capable of carrying on almost straight away. Even the oldest female in a family herd, the matriarch, can still give birth and lead the group, which I consider to be another demonstration of the strength and resilience of female elephants,’’ said Dr. Taylor.
‘‘Elephants of various species once roamed every continent on earth. Sociability and shared experience are likely major factors that allow African savannah elephants to thrive in such a wide range of habitats. Keeping up with the herd from the moment of birth also allows the babies to benefit from protection against predators at a vulnerable stage,’’ said Dr. Ian Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants.
The study is published in the journal Animal Behaviour.