Originally posted to Huffington Post on February 3, 2013.
I watched wild elephants mating today. I don’t know about you, but—first time for me.
I’m in Kenya working on a new book about the lives of animals.
Elephants have a unique mating system. First of all, females live together in families: a matriarch, her grown daughters, and all their kids. Males live in loose groups of males, or wander around on their own. Males don’t live in families.
Males don’t usually start trying to breed until they’re in their 20s. A weird thing happens. Older, higher ranking males, usually at least in their 30s, go into a period of heightened sexual appetite and aggressiveness called “musthe.” Male elephants in musthe are a little like male deer in “rut.” But deer all come into breeding readiness at the same time. With elephants, there is no way to predict which males will be in musthe or when. Males not in musthe would happily mate. But musthe males are bossy and aggressive, and—females prefer them.
Females mature around age 13, and then go into estrus for about 3 or 4 days. Almost every time they go into estrus, they conceive. They are pregnant for 2 years. About 2 years after giving birth, they go into estrus again, then they are pregnant for two more years while still nursing the last calf. (If they have a surviving baby, they keep nursing it for about 4 years.) In other words, they are ready to mate for only about 3 to 4 days every 4 to 5 years.
So when a female is ready, males are excited and there is a lot of competition.
Males in musthe walk around visiting different families, streaming fluid from the glands at the temples that both sexes have. (Both sexes stream from those glands when there is heightened emotion or excitement of any kind—a little like having sweating armpits on the side of your face, I guess). They also dribble urine constantly which broadcasts their status—you can smell it; it smells a bit like cat pee—and their penis appears greenish.
Researchers only figured this all out for African elephants in the 1970s. At first they thought the males were sick; they were calling the whole event, which can last a few weeks, “green penis disease.”
So, the musthe males go all around sniffing the air and sniffing the herds for estrus females. They walk up to adult females and instead of saying, “What’s your sign?,” they touch their trunk tip to her vulva, have a sniff, and often put the trunk into their mouths to test the taste.
This forward familiarity disturbs the ladies not in the least and they take it literally in stride, walking or feeding the whole time as if nothing is going on. Elephants are in many ways like humans, but there are limits to the comparison. Or at least, to the etiquette.
If a female is in estrus, various males will follow her and her family along. If a “musthe bull” arrives he will bully all rivals away and guard the estrus female. She will seem to be quite attracted to the musthe bull.
Now, today, it turned out that a musthe bull and several other bulls showed up among some ladies we were watching. Two families called the Zodiacs and the Rivers were mingling. Mingling families are called “bond groups” and are often relatives from families that have grown and split over decades of time.
Anyway, by watching the males we eventually realized that both Taurus Zodiac and Yangtze Rivers were in estrus. I know their names because I’m staying at the Save the Elephants field camp, and graduate student Shifra Goldenberg can recognize hundreds of elephants by sight.
First, a male called Bigfoot started chasing Taurus. Usually the game is that if a suitably grown-up bull catches up to a female in estrus and lays his trunk along her back, she stops and they mate. But Taurus must be just coming into estrus and didn’t seem ready. Or maybe she just didn’t want to mate with Bigfoot. When Bigfoot caught up to her and laid his trunk along her back, fair and square, she kept running. He was not pleased, and he came running alongside and looked like he was going to shove her with his tusks. But instead, he just roared in frustration, and broke off the chase.
Then Suzuki chased Taurus, with exactly the same response and result.
Then a musthe bull, who doesn’t seem to be in the database of known bulls, chased both those males away. There were about a dozen bulls around, all told, and all the females and bulls were all excited and running around and trumpeting. It’s called, “mating pandemonium.”
The boys got so carried away, they lost track of Taurus, whom I last saw traveling east. They all put their trunks up like periscopes, “looking” for the scent.
It was only then that we realized that Yangtze was also in estrus. The unknown musthe bull caught up to her and she let him mount.
Everyone seemed to get very quiet. The other bulls looked on in awe, transfixed. Mating lasted about two minutes.
After that, everyone calmed down and got back to resting—they must have exerted a lot of energy running around in the tropical noonday heat—and eating.
And we left, knowing that this excitement will be going on repeatedly for a few days.