Elephant families are not always about blood ties | University of Oxford
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Elephant families are not always about blood ties

Jonathan Wood

Like the Mitchells in Eastenders, nothing is more important than family for elephants.

Elephants maintain a complex social structure but herds are typically all made up of relatives, from travelling packs of mothers and calves to larger groups that contain aunts and cousins.

New research, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B and involving Department of Zoology researchers, has looked at what happens to these family groups when elephant populations are drastically affected by poaching. The researchers studied 900 elephants in the Samburu game reserve in northern Kenya over a five year period.

It turns out that viable social groups are so important that elephants will sometimes bring in unrelated animals into the group.

‘Elephants have historically lived in separate herds and do not mix with others that have no genetic link to them – but for the first time different herds have been seen to be joining together,’ writes Richard Alleyne in the Telegraph.

Iain Douglas-Hamilton of the Department of Zoology and founder of the Kenyan-based charity Save the Elephants took part in this research and sends these fantastic images.

‘This paper builds on the work Save the Elephants has been doing on the social structure of elephants in Samburu, but for the first time brings in genetic evidence to define the extent to which spatial associations of elephants have an underlying genetic basis,’ he told Oxford Science Blog.

ScienceNow, Science magazine’s online news site, helpfully explains how: ‘[The research team] pinpointed the elephants' genetic relationships to each other by sequencing DNA from fresh dung samples.’ 

The Samburu elephant population is thought to have lost three-quarters of its members to ivory poachers in the 1970s. As a result, elephants may be willing to accept non-relatives into their social group to ensure they have the critical mass needed to gather food and protect themselves, the researchers suggest.

‘Among the Samburu elephants, the genetic underpinnings have been eroded by high degrees of illegal killing,’ says lead author, George Wittemyer of Colorado State University. ‘Despite this human-driven pruning of their social tree, these elephants formed novel bonds with non-relatives to rebuild the nested structure of their social relations.’