In elephant families, Grandma is boss

A family of elephants is led by its eldest female, who’s often a grandma many times over.

And the older she is, the better, scientists have learned.

According to a recent study in Kenya, older matriarchs are better than younger ones at sizing up how dangerous a predator is.

Older matriarchs are better than younger ones at sizing up how dangerous a predator is, which likely gives their families an edge.

Over the course of two years, psychologist Karen McComb and her team played an assortment of lion calls to 39 elephant families whose matriarchs ranged from younger than 40 to older than 60. Every family also included a few other adult females—typically the matriarch’s daughters and younger sisters—and their calves.

Some of the recordings represented a graver threat than others, and the researchers observed the “defensive behavior” of each family to determine which of their matriarchs understood this.

Karen McComb, a professor of psychology at the University of Sussex, has been studying African elephants since the 1990s. Photo from The Argus.

Karen McComb, a professor of psychology at the University of Sussex in southern England, has been studying African elephants for more than 15 years. Photo from The Argus.

Most of the matriarchs correctly assessed the sound of a group of lions as more threatening than the sound of a single lion. But only the older ones seemed to know that the sound of a male lion signified more danger than the sound of a female.

The ability of the matriarchs to size up the lion calls rose steadily with age, and matriarchs in their 60s and beyond showed the best judgment of all, McComb found.

That’s probably because these matriarchs were the most experienced, says McComb, and perhaps also because they were no longer busy raising calves. While it’s not clear whether female elephants undergo menopause, many stop bearing young by their late 50s.

“As a result of typically no longer having young offspring, they may be able to take a more active role in group defence and could be more attentive to ecological signals,” McComb writes in a paper published in 2011.

Either way, a matriarch’s heightened sensitivity to danger likely gives her whole family an edge, according to McComb.

“Leadership is known to be crucial in the coordination of human groups, but we are only now beginning to appreciate its role in animal societies,” she writes.

“Our study provides the first empirical evidence that individuals within a social group may benefit directly from the influence of an older leader because of their enhanced ability to make crucial decisions about predatory threat.”

Scholars have also observed that older elephant matriarchs seem to be better than their younger counterparts at finding food and water during droughts, but there haven’t been any definitive studies to prove that.