Life Cycles

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Life Cycles

Did you know...

  • New-born elephants are born with an incredible mass of 77-113 kg. But they weight only 4% of an adult female's weight and only 2% of an adult male's.
  • New-borns may consume 11.4 litres of milk a day
  • Young calves commence weaning from the first year of life until the tenth year of life
  • The brain of new-born elephants are 30-40% of the size of that of an adult
  • Mothers allocate care and interact differently depending on the baby's sex

Infancy is a fascinating time for all species.  In the case of the elephant life cycle, it is early childhood that is most captivating.  The new-born enters this world at an incredible mass of 77-113 kg, with a height of about 91 cm at the shoulder, and unbelievably may consume 11.4 litres of milk a day.

The young calves are tended not only by their mothers, but also by other females of the herd.  There are many eyewitness accounts of the females in the herd gathering around to welcome the CLose Up Of Baby Elephantnew-born.  Within minutes of the birth, the mother and other females trumpet, rumble and scream, oozing temporal secretions down the side of their faces.  During these initial minutes the mother also attempts to help the new-born rise to its feet. This is a matter of survival since the new-born must stand to drink its mother's milk. Without this necessary food, the calf is sure to perish.

This kinship and social contact allows the young elephants to successfully reach other stages in life cycles.  Infancy is not only an important time for the young calves, but also for the young mothers-to-be.  It is through the close interaction and kinship between the two that allows the young females to develop necessary skills required for motherhood. However, first time mothers can be very awkward with their babies and depending on their experience can even play a role in hindering the calf from feeding.

The infancy life-cycle of an elephant is not a brief period.  Young elephants are started on the process of weaning in their first year of life and may continue to be weaned until their tenth year, or until another sibling is born. This prolonged dependency period is vital to the elephant. As a minimum, the African elephant calf is entirely dependent (emotionally and physically) on his/her mother for three to five years.

The elephant is an amazingly social creature. This particular period in development can be viewed as extended social contact. Also, it is clear evidence of the well documented fact that it plays an important educational period for elephants while their brains develop and they learn important survival and cultural knowledge.

The behaviouristic cliché of a person/elephant as a blank slate can be an interesting analogy to illustrate the point (Despite the fact that in its original case it was not only totally incorrect in its place of focus, and that it really does not capture the many varied forms of motivation for learning nor the social contextual influences and on... it is a useful way of seeing the elephant)

Due to a calf's fairly underdeveloped brain, the elephant is very much like a blank slate which must be shaped over the upcoming years. The elephant is quite similar to the human and many of the other great apes in this one particular way; a great deal of brain development goes on outside of the womb. Specifically, the brain of a new-born elephant is about 30-40% of the size of that of an adult. Amazingly, this opens worlds of possibility for complex learning, social development, and the formation of culture. In this situation a species tends to rely less upon instinctual behaviours and more upon socially learned behaviours within each individual's genetic boundary.

Hidden BabyAlso, this stage of development lays the foundation for the caregiver(s) to play a strong role in shaping the particular being growing up. The new-born elephant is born with a minimal amount of "innate" knowledge. For example,  despite a calf's "precocious" nature, he/she  lack the ability to use its trunk with any real skill. Hence as the calf grows and through experience, it will understand what it can do with its trunk (paralleling a human baby learning how to walk). The young calf will within time comprehend that it is to be used as an extra hand to pick up items, to scratch with, to drink with, and much much more...

It is the close contact and relationship between adult and calf that allows knowledge to be acquired and processed. A very interesting study published in the National Geographic Research Journal by Phyllis Lee delves into the early social development among African elephant calves. Interestingly, mothers have been found to care and to interact differently depending on whether it is a male or a female calve. Also, males sucked more frequently than females and moved away from their mother earlier. They were found to leave the local family unit to interact and play with non family members.

On the other hand, females stayed close to their mothers and engaged in more friendly and aggressive interactions. They also interacted more within the family unit.

These patterns lay the social foundation for the future lives of the two distinct sex groups. This difference of lifestyle between male and female elephants is more prevalent in their adolescent and their adult lives.

The major activity infant elephants are involved in is feeding, resting and travelling. This actually accounts for well over 80% of general observations in time sampling. As the calves get older (12-60+ months), they spend less time resting and travelling and much more time feeding. Also, as can be expected the time spent suckling decreases with age. Elephants typically are fully weaned at around 5 to 6 years of age.

Also, the distance between an elephant calf and his/her mother increases with age. Overall, females tended to remain quite close to the mother and as expected the males were much more independent.

Within the first three months of birth, a young calf's food intake is typically provided solely by the mother. Up to two years, the calf is very nutritionally dependent on the mother. After two years of age, the shift of emphasis is upon independent feeding despite the fact that the mother's milk remains an important part of a calves diet.

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