Social bonds are good for people, and many studies have shown that our relationships with friends and family help us live healthier and longer. However, our knowledge of how social bonds affect stress in non-primate species is lacking, especially considering the complex social lives of many animals.
An international team of scientists has attempted to glimpse into the social lives of an incredibly social animal to examine how their relationships, or lack thereof, affect their stress levels.
The researchers studied 95 Asian timber elephants (Elephas maximus) living in Myanmar. Since they are timber elephants, they work with people to move logs out of the forest. However, they spend a lot of time on their own in the forest. Studying elephants with this lifestyle gave the researchers a remarkable opportunity.
Study lead author Dr. Martin Seltmann is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biology at the University of Turku.
“This is a unique research environment and population that allows us to study many elephants living in their natural environment, but at the same time have detailed information about their social lives,” said Dr. Seltmann.
The handlers have an intimate understanding of the.elephants’ social lives and behavior. They provided insight on whether the elephants preferred to be sociable or to be alone.
The researchers also evaluated the sizes and demographics of the work groups. To measure stress levels, they collected fecal samples and measured glucocorticoid hormones, also known as stress hormones.
“We found, that male elephants show higher levels of stress when they have no friends and when they are in social groups with more males than females,” said study co-authors Martin Seltmann and Professor Virpi Lummaa.
“Female elephants show lower levels of stress when babies are present in the social group. The size of the social group is not related to levels of stress hormones in males nor females.”
Interestingly, the researchers found that solitary females were not as stressed as predicted. This may be because- although they don’t have strong social bonds with other elephants – the females can interact with individuals on a superficial level, which is enough to ease their stress.
Moreover, the results suggest that social bonds are more important for semi-captive male elephants than would be the case in a wild population, where males are typically solitary.
The study helps us understand the social lives of these brilliant animals. The authors hope that this information will be used to create more enriching environments for elephants and other captive animals.
The study is published in the journal General and Comparative Endocrinology.