• Newborn elephants are able to keep up with the herd from the moment they are born.
•The ability of mothers and newborns ‘to keep up’ may underpin why elephants have the longest gestation period of any mammal, say researchers.
A new study has revealed that elephant herds do not slow down for mothers who have just given birth.
The study, released on Wednesday, was conducted by researchers from the University of Oxford and Save the Elephants.
Elephants need to keep moving to find the amount of food and water they need to survive.
The new mothers and their calves have to keep up with the rest of the herd.
The findings, which have since been published in Animal Behaviour, show the average daily speed of the mother does not significantly change during pregnancy, birth and when moving with a newborn calf, except for a small dip in daily speed on the day of birth.
The findings show that the speed on the day before the elephant gave birth and the day after were no different from the yearly average speed.
The study, the first of its kind, gives an insight into how pregnancy, birth and newborn calves impact the movements of African savannah elephants. It also demonstrates the strength and resilience of female elephants.
Elephants live in strongly bonded, matriarchal herds.
Alongside the mother, other elephants (usually aunts) help to rear and protect calves.
However, different elephants in a herd can become pregnant and give birth at different times.
This asynchrony means elephants have to balance different needs and pressures between members of the herd.
To find out how these factors affect a herd’s movements, Save the Elephants fitted GPS tracking collars to pregnant elephants.
The tracking technology, pioneered by Save the Elephants, is an important tool for monitoring elephant movement and behaviour, and works similarly to a smartwatch tracking a walk or a run.
The age of baby elephants was estimated by size and appearance.
The scientists then brought all this data together to calculate whether the speed of the mother changed before, during and after birth.
Researchers say the secret lies with the 22-month gestation period in which baby elephants emerge from the womb ready to move with the rest of the family.
“We speculate that this ability ‘to keep up’ may underpin why elephants have the longest gestation period of any mammal to facilitate an advanced state of foetal physical development, and may have evolved to help elephant herds stay together,” lead author Dr Lucy Taylor from the University of Oxford said.
“I find it remarkable that female elephants are pregnant for 22 months, give birth and then are capable of carrying on almost straight away."
She said even the oldest female in a herd, the matriarch, can still give birth and lead the group, which she said demonstrates the strength and resilience of female elephants.
“Elephants of various species once roamed every continent on earth. Sociability and shared experience are likely major factors that allow African savannah elephants to thrive in such a wide range of habitats," Dr Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, said.
"Keeping up with the herd from the moment of birth also allows the babies to benefit from protection against predators at a vulnerable stage.”
This data set only contains elephants born in or near the relative safety of a national reserve and none of the elephant families recorded were travelling at speed for any length of time.
While neonatal calves are capable of keeping up with normal herd movements, moving at high speed has a considerable energetic cost and thus could impact calf survival.
Edited by A.N