Male Elephants


In the wild, whenever you see an adult elephant all alone, you can safely bet it is an adult male. Just as female elephants never like to be alone, and choose to spend their entire lives in the company of their mothers, sisters and daughters, the very opposite is true of adult males.  Once they leave their family herd at puberty, they spend the rest of their lives—thirty or more years—wandering the forests and fields alone. 

And, there is something that is particularly unusual about male elephants.  Every few months, individuals go in and out of a period known as musth.  When this happens, testosterone levels rise sharply and the male secretes a thick oil from the temporal glands on the sides of his head. 

photo M. Noonan

He also develops a strong-smelling urine that he sprays onto his own legs as he travels. He becomes very irritable at this time and he typically picks a fight with any other male elephant that he encounters.

photo M. Noonan

In some ways it is like the aggressive "rutting season" that can be seen in many hoofed animals.  However, one of the oddest things about this phenomenon is that different male elephants go into musth at different times of the year.  In other words, they go through their aggressive periods individually, without being synchronized to each other and without being synchronized to any particular season. 

At this point, it’s very difficult for scientists to understand how this trait is adaptive—that is, how the musth period serves the reproductive fitness of the males.  Whether a male elephant is in musth or not, he spends most of his time on the move looking for females.  And whether he is in musth or not, he will eagerly breed with any receptive females that he encounters.  So why he periodically goes through this special state is something that we have to admit that we just don’t understand very well about male elephants. 

CAC is a program of the Institute for the Study of Human-Animal Relations at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY.