Do Elephants Have Mommy Issues Too?

Source Article: Hoerner et al., “Differences in Mother–Infant Bond and Social Behavior of African Elephant Calves Living In Situ and Ex Situ.” Animals 2023, 13(19)3051,

Elephants are very social animals, and just like humans, they benefit from close attachments to their families. Teenage elephants can be more aggressive without a father figure, and baby elephants (also known as calves) need the nourishment and love of their mother at the beginning of life to survive. Relatable, right? But what happens when a baby elephant is born and raised inside a zoo? Does the environment affect the relationship between mother and child? Researchers in Germany studied the differences in relationships between wild and captive African elephant mothers and calves to answer these questions.

Mother and baby elephant together
Baby elephants are very close to their families. Image source: Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED, via Wikimedia Commons.
Animal Behavior Is a Mix of DNA And Environment Factors

Mother elephants in the wild need to be close to their baby, since the environment holds many threats and can change at any moment. Keeping the baby fed and protected is part of the DNA of some wild animals and essentially what makes them survive through thousands of years of evolution. Therefore, the environment where these animals live can change the animals’ behavior if they feel secure, well-nourished, and carefree. Ideally, a zoo environment should provide exactly these kinds of conditions. However, social bonds are different from the wild, and zoo family units are not necessarily as closely related as in the wild.

In this study, researchers monitored the proximity to mother, eating habits, and social behaviour of 106 African elephant calves from multiple generations. Although the general behavior of the calves did not differ between the two environments, the proximity to their mother was significantly different. While calves living in the wild keep themselves closer to their mother most of the time, zoo elephants keep the distance higher and for a longer time.

The eating habits also differ from both groups, while zoo calves spend more time eating and enjoying themselves, wild calves spend less time eating. The dangerous and open environment in the wild could cause anxiety, stress, and fear, while the safe environment of a zoo allows a constant search for food.

Calves living in safe environments are less afraid to separate earlier from their mother as this behavior is not a risk for them. That way, those animals can be more open to learning, observing, eating, and developing as one calf from the wild would never be able to.

Baby elephant alone
Elephant calves can change their behavior based on the environment. Image source: Bjarki781, CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED, via Wikimedia Commons.
Mother-Child Distance Can Change Through Generations

Although there is a big difference between the environments, this behavior can change as the distance from their mother was not the same in each generation. Social bonds and zoo family units differ according to the environment, and the mother-infant proximity is related to the family and bonds that subsist over years and generations.

If zoos continue to breed elephants to avoid the importation of wild elephants from nature, the social behavior ideally shouldn’t impact their well-being through generations.

Apart from the many implications on elephants’ behavior, this study shows us how the relationships between mother and child can change the animals’ perception of the environment and affect social interactions. And that for itself gives us much to relate to in our human social culture. It is remarkable to see how family relationships can affect our way of seeing life and our independence. So, mommy issues may not be that bad, after all.

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Renata de Mello

Renata de Mello

I'm a biologist and an MSc in Biochemistry who works as a lab technician at KU Leuven (Belgium). Outside the lab, I can be found reading fiction books, cooking Brazilian food, traveling across Europe, and working towards my passion for science and communication.

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