Elephant “elders” pass on ecological knowledge to the next generation.

A recent study of animal behaviour published in Scientific Reports, a natural research group, found that there is an intergenerational inheritance of ecological knowledge in elephant herds – older male elephants may play an important role in leading the way for young male elephants when entering unknown or dangerous environments. For long-lived species such as elephants and whales, older individuals are often better able to cope with complex and changing environments, which may help young individuals in the population avoid risk. Previously, research in this field has generally focused more on female elephants.

Connie Allen and colleagues from the University of Exeter in the UK studied cluster behaviour and lead patterns of 1,264 male African prairie elephants that migrate back and forth along the route of the Botetti River in Botswana’s Makadikadi Salt MarshEs National Park (MPNP).

The team found that 20.8 percent (263) of the elephants seen along the migration route were solo. Adolescent males are much less likely to travel alone than expected, and males as men are more likely to travel alone than expected, which may indicate that travelling alone is more risky for young, independent, and inexperienced individuals. The study found that older male elephants walked more in front of the elephant herd, indicating that adult male elephants acted as ecological knowledge master and that adult males or leaders played an important role in the collective migration of male African grassland elephants.

In terms of reproduction, older male elephants are considered redundant, a view often used to support the legal hunting of older male elephants. But selective hunting of older male elephants could also disrupt the entire male elephant community and affect the intergenerational transmission of their accumulated ecological knowledge, the team said.