The Role Of The Matriarch Elephant

The elephant herd is led by the oldest and largest female cow known as the matriarch. She is usually the one who was the most closely related to the previous matriarch. The rest of the herd is made up of the matriarch’s other daughters and their calves. These ones gravitate naturally around the matriarch, making her quite simple to identify. She influences the herd more than any other group or individual. In a crisis, the herd will rely on her to make the major decisions as to their course of action. If this is not the case in a particular herd, it is likely that the personality of the matriarch or the genetic make-up of that herd plays a major part.

Mama Elephant

Mama Elephant

Like humans, some elephants are born to be leaders. These are not always the matriarchs and the matriarch will need to establish her dominance with such ones. Successful leaders earn respect through their wisdom, confidence and connections with other elephants. They need to care for the needs of their herd, and be compassionate to their own herd as well as the members of other herds. If the elephant who is successful in doing this overpowers the existing matriarch, it is possible for that one to replace the older cow. “Overpowering” is not a physical action, it may simply be the challenging of her authority, or a decision on the part of the rest of the herd to elect a certain one as leader.

Elephant herd in Kenya, photographed by Susan Portnoy.

Elephant herd in Kenya, photographed by Susan Portnoy.

Herds are usually made up of between 6 and 12 elephants. However, groups of between 12 and 20 elephants are also not uncommon. If the herd becomes too large, some of the daughters will break away with their young to form new groups on instruction from the matriarch. This may happen if the food – and water supplies are not sufficient to sustain the entire herd as they move through a specific area. As they travel, the daughters and their calves follow the lead of the matriarch elephant, walking behind her in single file. Calves follow their mothers obediently, holding on to their tails with their strong little trunks.

March 1999, Maasai Mara, Kenya --- Baby African Elephant Holding Mother's Tail --- Image by © Tom Brakefield/CORBIS

March 1999, Maasai Mara, Kenya — Baby African Elephant Holding Mother’s Tail — Image by © Tom Brakefield/CORBIS

As the first and oldest mother, the matriarch is instrumental in teaching her daughters how to care for their own young. Once they start to bear babies, their sisters will assist in childcare. This provides training for them, preparing them for their own first calves. Elephant mothers are attentive to the needs of their young. Babies are born with almost no instinctive patterns, nearly everything they do has been taught to them by their mothers and aunts. What they get taught will vary according to the matriarch and her herd different groups face different dangers and bear different responsibilities. The matriarch will determine what it important for that specific herd and mothers teach the young ones accordingly. When she dies, she is normally succeeded by her closest relative from the herd (usually the oldest daughter).

Source: Elephants Forever

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