Elephant Manners

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Swazi's son, born April 2010

In my last post, Umoya’s Calf, I mentioned that due to the social hierarchy within the African elephant herd at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, the newest elephant calf, born May 12, 2010, to Umoya, has learned to “watch his step” around Swazi. Let me explain:

All the calves have to learn and establish their social rank in the herd, just as they would in the wild. Since Umoya is the second-ranked female, her calf benefits from his mother’s rank as long as she is nearby. Since Swazi is the top-ranked female, she doesn’t have to be submissive to any of the other females or their calves. Umoya’s calf is learning that around Swazi in particular, there is a submissive way to approach her, and there is the wrong way to approach her. He’s learning that the wrong way to approach her is head-on and that he should get out of her way when she’s moving about.

A submissive posture for an elephant is to turn around and back in toward the more dominant elephant as if “asking permission” to be in the dominant elephant’s space. It also appears to me that when the submissive elephant is startled by a situation that involves one or more dominant elephants, they will not only turn around, but they’ll vocalize and urinate as if to punctuate that they’re being submissive. It’s almost as if they’re saying, “Sorry, sorry, it wasn’t me, I’m sorry!”

Each encounter that I’ve observed has its own subtle nuances. Depending on which animals are involved and the situation, it gives me new angles in which to deduct its meaning. Someone else may interpret it differently as well. It’s all very fascinating to observe!

Curtis Lehman is an animal care supervisor at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park.

Watch the Park’s elephants daily on Elephant Cam!