Experts say endangered Asian elephants are forming ‘teenage gangs’ to protect themselves from poachers and farmers while foraging.
Juvenile animals are forming all-male groups when entering areas with a high risk of human contact – such as areas of cropland or deforestation.
In addition to protecting themselves, the extraordinary evolutionary development also helps to ensure their fertility, the researchers claim.
Scientists say the bodies of young elephants are more attractive to females than their older counterparts and that congregating in groups makes them easier to see.
The groundbreaking study by the National Institute for Advanced Studies in Bengaluru, India, was based on an analysis of 1,445 photographs of 248 male individuals.
The images – collected across southern India over two years – show calves forming large groups of bulls when entering forestless areas and farms.
Sexually immature calves mostly live in mixed-sex groups while adult males were mostly solitary, keeping with bull elephants’ reputation as antisocial loners.
Elephant biologist Nishant Srinivasaiah, a PhD scholar at the institute, is behind the study.
He said: ‘ Male Asian elephants are known to adopt a high-risk feeding strategy by venturing into agricultural areas and feeding on nutritious crops to improve their reproductive fitness.
‘We hypothesized that the high risks to survival posed by increasing urbanization and often unpredictable productive landscapes may necessitate the emergence of behavioral strategies that allow male elephants to exist in such places.’
Despite their worldwide popularity, this is not the first time the strange creatures have been compared to gangsters.
Their lifestyle is all about power, domination, reverence, brutality and – above all – family.
The way the males interact with each other is said to be very similar to a ceremonial society – like the Mafia.
Mr. Srinivasaiah said the largest herds of juvenile elephants were found where there was plenty of crops and water.
He said: ‘These individuals tended to be in better body condition than solitary adult males.
‘This suggests that grouping in young males may be an adaptive behavior to improve fertility in resources with a high risk of human contact.’
It helps them remain in ‘musth’ – the elephant term for the uncomfortable feeling they get when they chase females due to increasing testosterone.
Mr. Srinivasaiah said: ‘For sexually and socially mature males, this strategy can serve to maintain good body condition that helps them to stay in musth for longer periods.
‘When in musth, these males either move singly in search of fertile females or association with mixed-sex groups in deciduous forest areas, possibly to increase their chances of mating.
‘We also found these males, when not in musth, were largely solitary in forest habitats, which conforms with previous studies of Asian elephants.’
In the Asian elephant society, when they reach adolescence, males often leave the family searching for unrelated females to mate in areas rich in food and drink, where they can establish themselves.
But this is changing due to human activity. The study was conducted in an area close to major towns and cities, such as Bangalore – dubbed the ‘Silicon Valley of India’.
It has undergone major land-use changes with population growth, agriculture, road construction, and urban sprawl – all at the expense of forest cover and natural elephant habitats.
The team also discovered that groups foraging on arable land had chosen to live together for many years. This ‘risk management strategy’ improves survival.
Understanding evolving behavior could reduce conflict between humans and elephants – and prevent further loss of threatened species, they said.
Mr. Srinivasaiah said: ‘We show that Asian elephants exhibit striking behaviors, particularly the formation of stable, long-term all-male groups, often in areas without forests or by humans-modified and highly fragmented.
However, they still live alone or are associated in mixed-sex groups within forest habitats.
‘These novels, large all-male associations, may constitute a unique life history strategy for male elephants in the high-risk but resource-rich production region of southern India.
‘This may be especially true for adolescents, who seem to effectively improve their body condition by increasingly exploiting artificial sources when in all-male groups.
‘This observation further supports our hypothesis that such emerging behaviors potentially constitute an adaptive strategy for male Asian elephants that may be forced to increasingly forced to increasingly confront man-made intrusive environments…’
The Asian elephant is found throughout the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia – including Nepal, Sumatra, and Borneo.
It has been declared endangered on the IUCN Red List since 1986. The population has declined by at least 50% over the past three generations due to habitat loss and po.ac.hing.
The Asian elephant is smaller than the African one, which is vulnerable.