Updated on November 29, 2023

Article and cover image by the International Elephant Foundation

As humans, we tend to see ourselves reflected in our world. So, it’s only natural that we anthropomorphize living things around us, helping us form emotional connections. These connections encourage us to protect what we love.

But are these similarities real or are they simply us projecting our own characteristics onto animals? For example, when it comes to elephants, how similar are our family structures? When we see a baby elephant amongst a herd of adults, does it know its grandparents? The short answer … kind of!

elephant herdImage courtesy of Richard Moller and Tsavo Trust

What is anthropomorphizing?

Anthropomorphizing is seeing human traits in animals. For example, it’s assuming an animal is displaying emotions, such as happiness, sadness, anger or guilt. Since we cannot ask the animal what it’s feeling or why it acts a certain way, we interpret their behavior and feelings in the only way we know how — through the lens of our own feelings and experiences.

Attributing human traits to animals has its pitfalls. It can negatively impact their care and management when these assumptions lead us to misinterpret their actions and not provide the appropriate care the animal really needs. It’s important to recognize when we’re anthropomorphizing and its context and know it’s all we have until, like Dr. Doolittle, we can talk to the animals.

elephantImage courtesy of Tsavo Trust

Life of an elephant

Elephants live in matriarchal herds, where the females hold authority. All three species of elephants from the African savannah elephant to the African forest elephant to the Asian elephant, live in family units led by an older and dominant female elephant called a matriarch. The matriarch is responsible for overseeing the protection of the group and guiding their travels in search of food and water.

African savanna elephants typically live in groups of five to eight related adult females and their offspring, but there are times when these family groups come together and form herds in the hundreds. Forest elephants and Asian elephants also live in related familial matriarchal groups, but the sizes of the families are smaller due to their forested habitat. Most female elephants will stay with the family group they were born into, but those groups of sisters, aunts and cousins will eventually splinter off into subgroups when the family becomes too large.

Female elephants form close bonds with each other and spend much of their time rearing calves. The close family structure is a benefit to raising calves as it allows young adolescent females to practice mothering skills while babysitting younger siblings and cousins. A nursing grandmother will often show more interest and care in her nursing daughter’s calf than to the other calves in the family group, which can create a stronger bond between the two.

elephant baby and adultImage courtesy of Elephant Connection and IEF

Do elephants recognize their grandparents?

So, do elephants young and old recognize their grandmothers? The answer is yes. Young calves, both male and female, recognize their grandmother as a member of the family group. They see her as a protector when they are young. Female calves see her as a leader when they become older. But it’s unlikely they understand the concept that a specific elephant is the mother of their mother. They recognize that a certain older female is very important in their life and the glue that holds the family together.

But what about grandfathers? For the first few years of their lives, male calves live with their mothers, aunts and grandmothers in the herd. Like their sisters, they will nurse from their mothers, grow and learn from their herd and spend much of their time playing.

As they grow older and become adolescents, their play becomes very rough as they are beginning to reach sexual maturity. Playtime behaviors by male calves turn into sparring practice for when they reach adulthood and need to fight other males for the opportunity to breed. This rough and tumble play, as well as attempting to practice breeding with the young female calves, is not tolerated by the adult females and the young male preteen or teenager is forced to leave the family group. That might sound heartless, but these boys are ready to be out on their own and quickly join groups of males of various ages.

For the next 20 years or so of their lives, these males travel over large areas eating, sparring, gaining size and strength and their tusks grow thick and strong. Even though bulls hang out together in loose associations with other bulls, they do not have a cohesive herd structure like females. They come and go as they please in their search of mates, food and water. The older adult males in these groups are dominant and act as friends, teachers and disciplinarians.

Meanwhile, when elephants do reproduce, a female elephant spends 660 days (almost two years) pregnant. The father of the calf is not allowed to stay with the female family group and may be a hundred miles away by the time the calf is born. Therefore, elephant calves — both male and female — don’t know their fathers and, by extension, their grandfathers.

elephantsImage courtesy of Tsavo Trust

Job of an elephant grandparent

Grandmothers play an important role in a young elephant’s life by being a caregiver, teacher and ensuring its survival. Though grandfathers are not involved in the lives of their offspring, they play an equally important role. They pass on the traits that will enhance a grandchild’s survival to become parents themselves and hopefully, grandparents too.

As much as we see ourselves in the animals with whom we share this world, each species is unique and interesting in its own way, and preserving elephants helps to protect many of those species with whom we cannot as easily connect. The more we know and learn about elephants, the more we will be inspired to preserve them for future generations when our grandchildren’s grandchildren will be inspired all over again.

Learn more about elephants by visiting the International Elephant Foundation website, or connecting with them on Facebook and Instagram.


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