Ontogeny of the Mother-calf Relationship in African Forest Elephants, Loxodonta africana cyclotis

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African elephants, Loxodonta africana, comprise two subspecies which inhabit different environments, which allows us to investigate how differences in ecology influence the expression of social behaviors. Parenting, performed solely by the mother in elephants, is a long-term and psychologically important behavior which may vary between forest elephants, L. africana cyclotis, and savanna elephants, L. africana africana. Three ecological factors are of particular interest in the rarer and lesser-known forest subspecies: smaller family group size than in savanna elephants; the dispersal of adult females along with adolescent males; and the presence of highly contested mineral pits in forest clearings (bais). Despite the fact that forest elephant calves have few family members present, they do not engage in friendly mother-calf interactions at higher rates than do their savanna counterparts. The fact that both male and female forest elephants disperse may account for a decrease in friendly mother-calf interactions with age, consistent with explanations for an analogous decrease among savanna elephant males (Lee 1986). The rate of maternal aggression increased as forest elephant females aged, likely due to increased competitiveness with the mother for mineral pits, while the rate decreased for more independent males. In examining the dispersal syndrome, it appears that longer separations from the mother do not represent a preparatory behavior, since age of the calf did not significantly affect the duration for either male or female calves. The presence of an older sibling, who may act as an allomother, did, however. This research underscores the importance of mineral pits as an influence on the family dynamics in bais, given that aggression revolved around pits, calves often wandered in order to access pits, and mothers did not frequently initiate reunion with separated calves due to occupation of a pit.

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