Family Structure
Trunk Full of Tales


Did you know?

  • An elephant family is ruled by a matriarch (older female), and generally consist of her female offspring and their young
  • In Africa, a basic family unit consists of six  to twelve animals, but families of twelve to twenty elephants are quite common
  • An elephant family will split depending on the size of the family, the amount of available food, and how well they are getting along.
  • When the matriarch dies, one of the oldest offspring takes her place.
Life Cycles

The mating patterns of elephants offer us key insights into family structures and life cycle behaviours. Mating patterns are unique since elephants do not confine mating to a specific time of year.  The situation which develops involves the bull pursuing the cow until she is ready for mounting.  When the bull elephant desires sexual activity, he approaches the matriarch-led herd.  Once the bull finishes his business he joins the bachelor herd or leaves on his own.  It is this male-leaving behaviour that highlights the matriarch elephant family.

An elephant family is led by a matriarch, with the matriarch being the oldest and most experienced of the herd. The matriarchal society consists of her female offspring and their young. In some cases it may include one of the matriarch's sisters and her offspring as well. It is this close contact and relationship allows the rest of the elephant to acquire knowledge to be used when needed.

A basic African family unit contains six to twelve members. However, keep in mind that families of twelve or more elephants are quite common in certain areas. 

Males as they grow older and approach puberty gradually become more independent from the family group. This involves primarily spending more time on the outskirts of the group. Eventually, the males leave the family and join with other males of different ages in a band of bulls.

Of the two different groups--female family groups and bull bands--the female group appears to be the enduring social unit. Often times when groups split apart, they maintain close association between each other; this include travelling together throughout the range. These related groups have been coined 'bond groups' by Joyce Poole and Cynthia Moss. 

It is possible that these bond groups form larger units that have been called clans. Obviously, this is very difficult to study as well as to document as we are incapable of speaking and hearing as Elephants do. Thus, we must rely upon observations of greetings ceremonies that require an in-depth longitudinal study. A major problem for this type of ecological research is the fact that subjects are often murdered for their ivory.

After a indeterminate amount of time part of the group will split off to form a new family. This seems to depend on both environmental and social influences. Such as, how well the family members are getting along and the amount of food that is available to support the group. In times of food shortage families typically will split apart to maximize the possibility for survival. 

When a matriarch dies, one of her elder offspring often takes the 'throne'. 

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