If you have a deep interest in natural history, then chances are Caitlin O’Connell’s name is already familiar. And if not: simply put, she’s like Jane Goodall, but with elephants.
The author’s note for Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse (University of Chicago Press) identifies O’Connell as author of “the acclaimed science memoir The Elephant’s Secret Sense,” from the same publisher, “and the Smithsonian channel documentary 'Elephant King,’” which I am going to watch just as soon as this column is done. For in fact the topic was of no particular interest to me before noticing Elephant Don, with its arresting and beautifully composed cover photo of several tuskers gathered on a dusty plane in Namibia -- a portrait of “the boys’ club,” as O’Connell dubs a roving group she’s studied in the wild for many years.
Portions of the book are adapted from postings to the New York Times’s Scientist at Work blog that the author wrote while also publishing more technical presentations of her findings in Ethology Ecology & Evolution, American Zoologist and other peer-reviewed journals. When not doing fieldwork in Namibia, O’Connell is an instructor at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Her vita also lists her as co-author (with Donna M. Jackson) of The Elephant Scientist -- an award-winning children’s book -- to which Elephant Don is something like the grown-up’s sequel.
O'Connell's earlier writings, both scientific and popular, reported on research into elephants’ ability to communicate through their feet, via seismic waves. A bull in heat can “hear” the distinctive stomps of an amorous female and make his way in her direction. Elephants do not have a herdwide mating season. Mature individuals of either sex go into heat on their own cycle, for periods of four to six weeks, every five years or so. Without the earthshaking mating call, they might never hook up.
Why not? It’s a matter of gender politics: male offspring have a place in the herd until they reach sexual maturity. The surge of hormones turns the male calf into enough of a pest that the matriarchy pushes him out to fend for himself in a world full of predators and loneliness. (The men’s rights movement would be hard-pressed to adduce a more pitiful injustice.)
Elephant Don chronicles the life and times of a group of adult males who come to Mushara -- the watering hole where the author and her coworkers have established their observation post -- during several summers, beginning in 2005. The size and composition of the cohort change over time, but researchers can distinguish the animals by variations in size, tusk length and ear characteristics -- identifying them by nicknames that seem to become more comical from one year to the next, including Luke Skywalker, Keith Richards, Rocky Balboa and Captain Picard.
The de facto leader of the group -- the one who gets the best spot at the watering hole and decides when it’s time to leave -- is an old bull called Greg, also known as “the don,” for reasons that become clear after he takes his place:
“[The] subordinates line[d] up to place their trunks in his mouth as if kissing a Mafioso don’s ring…. Each bull approached in turn with trunk outstretched, quivering in trepidation, dipping the tip into Greg’s mouth. It was clearly an act of great intent, a symbolic gesture of respect for the highest-ranking male. After performing the ritual, the lesser bulls seemed to relax their shoulder as they shifted to a lower-ranking position within the elephant equivalent of a social club.”
The don bellows and flaps his ears to signal that it’s time to roll, and his loyal subordinates bellow in reply while making sure that the younger bulls don’t fall behind.
Hierarchy and communication are well-established aspects of life in the matriarchal herd, but O’Connell indicates that social order among exiled males is a much less studied topic. She observes other behavior that seems to express or maintain the leadership arrangement, such as one bull turning his back to acknowledge his subordinate position to another, or holding his trunk over a younger or smaller bull’s head, which seems to express camaraderie.
Another set of signs accompany the onset of musth, the mating phase, when a bull’s testosterone level shoots up to 20 times normal. He walks around in a state of constant arousal, dribbling urine and ready for action. Once in an all-male group, a young bull’s musth-driven aggression (fighting and mounting everyone in sight) will be met by shoves and head butting from his elders. O’Connell hypothesizes that such disciplinary action may cause “socially induced hormone suppression,” as happens with other species.
It doesn’t always work, and a couple of the book’s most dramatic chapters describe challenges to the don’s authority by low-ranking but high-testosterone young bulls. There is also a period when most of Greg’s entourage disintegrates under the stress of a drought, partially reassembling around his leadership when conditions improve later.
Giving the elephants human names, while a matter of convenience in recording their behavior, is already a step towards anthropomorphizing them, and the process is irreversible once you add narrative. That’s fine in popular exposition, since the stories O’Connell has to tell -- both about the elephants and about life in the field, with poisonous snakes and infrequent access to a shower -- are certainly absorbing.
But I wondered for a while if the ascriptions of personality and motive to her “pachyderm posse” might not embellish things beyond credibility. Only halfway through the book do we get a chapter reviewing scientific findings about elephants’ cognitive powers -- pages that put the question in a new light.
Seismic communication itself is pretty impressive, but elephants also have the capacity to solve problems (say, by throwing rocks or an uprooted tree onto an electrified fence to disable it) and to fine-tune tools: “In one study, for example, elephants were shown to use their highly muscular prehensile trunks to modify branches for optimum use as switches to repel flies.” Their proverbial memory may be superior to that of humans, and experiments have shown them to be able to understand iconic symbols and to remember distinctions for long periods.
So the possibility that they have rituals and a social order is not, on the whole, that much of a stretch. It’s enough to make you wonder what they think of us, assuming they even bother.
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