The social structure of elephants is complex, varying by gender, and population dynamics. Adult elephants form matriarchal (female-led) societies. Adult males are usually solitary.
Adult male elephants are solitary in nature but may associate with other bulls (adult males) in small, unstable groups. Males will leave the family unit (natal unit) between 12 and 15 years of age.
Bulls that associate in small groupings have a hierarchal-ranking social structure. Leaders, determined by age and strength, protect the front and rear of the herd. More docile (quiet-natured) bulls do not seek leadership roles, but serve as stabilizing members within the group. Hierarchical roles are re-established and re-adjusted whenever a male leaves or enters the group.
Although primarily solitary in nature, bulls will associate with non-natal family units (family units to which they are not related). Bulls do not have preferences for specific family units and will randomly move to different groupings daily and even hourly looking for reproductively receptive females. The bulls' nomadic (wandering) social system allows them to maximize reproductive potential. With this system, a single bull can potentially find up to 30 mates in a year, as opposed to fathering four calves in three years, if he associates with only one family unit
Female social structure is similar to concentric rings, with the innermost circle comprising a family unit of related adult cows (females). Family units range in size from three to 25 individuals; including the eldest, most dominant female called the matriarch, her adult daughters, and their calves, and a number of juveniles. From this stable core, the groupings widen to include less familiar individuals.
Matriarchs / Hierarchy Status
The oldest, most dominant female is called the matriarch. The matriarch is the backbone of the elephant family unit because she provides stability and determines ranging patterns for the rest of the family.
The other females comprising the family unit are usually the matriarch's daughters and their offspring. The hierarchal ranking for these females is based on leadership, experience, and age. Generally, the older the female, the higher her ranking.
The primary function of elephant family units is the protection and rearing of calves. Adult females cooperate in the assistance of calf movements, foraging, protection, and social experiences. Calf survivability greatly increases with an increased number of females taking care of them.
Elephant family units may have consistent, friendly interactions with other units. These associated families are called kin or bond groups and will mingle, feed, and interact with one another frequently. Bond groups may be composed of unrelated females or of related.
Under ideal environmental circumstances, family units may congregate in groups of up to six families. Occasionally, there may be herd aggregations ranging in size from 500 to 1,000 individuals around watering holes and other consolidated resources. Herd aggregations have also been documented in areas of intense poaching (illegal hunting) pressure.
Large congregations of elephants occur more frequently with African elephants than Asian. In regions with less food, smaller elephant family units are found. In regions with abundant food, larger social groups are formed.
Bulls assess each other’s strength through sparring or play-fighting. The level of dominance is closely related to a bull's size, power, and weight. As bulls mature, these characteristics increase.
Bulls that are in musth are particularly dominant and non-musth bulls and younger males avoid confrontations with them. Refer to musth section.
The complex nature of elephant social structure is extended into the mourning behavior for deceased companions. When elephants come across deceased remains of other elephants, a silent pause is taken, as the remains are touched with their trunks. Occasionally tusks or bones are carried with them, as the herd continues to travel.
Elephants are not territorial. The home range is between 10 and 70 km2 (four to 27 mi.2) and possibly larger, depending on herd size and seasonality.
Elephants have a musth gland located just beneath the skin's surface, halfway between the eye and ear, on each side of their head.
Annually, musth glands secrete a dark, oily, musky substance and become inflamed. This physiological change is associated with a behavior observed in male elephants called musth, and is characterized by unpredictable, dominant, and excitable behavior.
The musth period lasts between several days to several months. There is no seasonal pattern with musth. Bulls come into it a different times.
Male elephants first experience musth about three years after sexual maturity (between eight and 15 years of age) is reached. The musth secretion increases gradually until the bulls reach their 40's, after which, it declines in strength and intensity.
Female African elephants experience a much less intense form of musth. It is thought that the scent of the secretion primarily helps unify the herd. Musth has not been documented in Asian female elephants.
Bulls in musth display a significant change in behavior and deep vocabulary of sounds, which signals strength and virility. These bulls will dominate a herd and are aggressive in warding off rivals. Musth males may rub secretions onto trees to scent-mark (signal to other males) their areas of dominance.
Bathing / Dusting
Bathing appears to be pleasurable and is essential to elephants. The trunks are used like a hose to spray water across the body. To help protect the skin from parasites and biting insects, elephants wallow in mud or spray dust on their wet skin. Once the mud and dust is dry, elephants rub against a hard surface, removing most parasites.
Elephants sleep about approximately four hours a night. About two hours of that are spent standing. During deep sleep, individuals lie on their sides, breathing noisily, and sometimes snoring.
A top speed of 30 kmh (18 mph.) over short distances has been recorded for elephants.
Elephants have been described as having an ambling (easy-going) walk at a normal rate of six to eight kmh (3.6 to 4.8 mph.).
Trials of Strength
Young, strong bulls test strength by pushing over trees. A 45 cm (18 in.) circumference tree can easily be pushed over with just the head, trunk, or foreleg.
While many strong bulls like to test strength by pushing over trees, only one or two bulls in a group will make it a specialty. Skilled bulls can bring down trees as large as 150 cm (5 ft.) in circumference.
Elephants are crepuscular in nature, primarily active at dawn and dusk (twilight hours) when the environment is cooler.