Elephants live in large families made up of babies, juveniles, and females. They’re often led by the oldest of these females, The Matriarch, who hold an important social role in the families.
Professor Phyllis Lee of the University of Stirling in the UK, wanted to know more about how these families worked. In her research, published in Springer’s journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, she found something surprising: having a grandma made a huge difference in whether a new baby survived.
“It was an unexpected finding for us,” said Lee. “We didn’t think we’d find that very positive relationship between having a grandmother present and how well the daughters were doing in terms of reproduction.”
Part of what made Lee’s study special was the sheer amount of data she used. She looked at information from 834 individual elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. Researchers have been watching elephants in Amboseli for more than forty years. That’s the kind of records you need when you study an animal that can live as long as a human.
“We’re only halfway there, we need another 40 years of data,” said Lee.
For most animals, they have babies until they die. This makes elephants, which can live long after they’re done reproducing, pretty rare- in fact- elephants can live up to 70 years old. Most other animals just don’t live long enough to really see their children’s children.
Other animals also don’t necessarily have any significant bond to their children. In many species, the mom and grandmother will end up fighting each other for resources if they’re in the same area. This is not the case with elephants. “Elephants are really nice and supportive,” said Lee.
It’s not unusual for the entire elephant herd to help raise new babies, even if they’re not directly related to them. Elephant grandmas help protect the babies: keep track of them and help them if they get stuck. Grandmas lead the family to the right places to forage or drink and lead the way when interacting with other elephant families.
Like she said, her research needs about forty more years to paint a more complete picture of elephant social structures. Her work has potential to give us hints about our own aging species, like why we go through menopause.