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Older is wiser elephant study shows

By Colin Ricketts - 17 Mar 2011 15:33:2 GMT
Older is wiser elephant study shows

How animals make decisions may shine a light on how we humans behave in groups, and a recent study of the behaviour of African elephants shows that rather than being democracies animals accept and benefit from leadership.

Scientists from the University of Sussex have just published the results of their research in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences and say that elephant groups with elderly female members make better decisions because they defer to the superior knowledge of their seniors.

Measuring such behaviour has been a problem, however, and this new study used a novel means of testing the learned ecological knowledge of its subjects by playing recordings of lions to them.

Female African elephants live in a matriarchal society with the eldest taking the lead. As giants of their habitat, there are relatively few predators that elephants need to worry about with - humans aside - lions the main threat to their lives. Although lionesses do much of the hunting, male lions with their greater size and strength are the real danger to elephants, particularly when they hunt in groups.

The study used known elephants in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya and played recordings of lions roaring to them. The recordings featured both male and female lions and single lions and the sounds of a group of a lions. Elephants will usually react to a predator threat by tightening their group and preparing to mob their would-be assailants.

And, it turns out that groups with older females are better at determining threat and acting accordingly.

The report says: ''Sensitivity to this key threat increases with matriarch age and is greatest for the oldest matriarchs, who are likely to have accumulated the most experience. Our study provides the first empirical evidence that individuals within a social group may derive significant benefits from the influence of an older leader because of their enhanced ability to make crucial decisions about predatory threat, generating important insights into selection for longevity in cognitively advanced social mammals.''