By Graham Duggan  

Elephant grandmothers play a very special role in the herd. The oldest and wisest female is the leader who will guide the whole family.

Female elephants are social animals that can live into their sixties and beyond. Very strong bonds form between members of a family herd which is led by the oldest female.

Grandma is head of the herd

As seen in Nature of Things documentary Mommy Wildest, female African elephants raise generations of offspring while teaching everything there is to know about their environment and social circles.  “The matriarch is an incredibly unique individual in terms of the knowledge she possesses and that knowledge is what gives he the leadership power in her family,” says Dr. George Wittemyer one of the world’s leading elephant experts.

Studies have shown that young calves have a much better chance of survival when under the care of their grandmothers.  A successful matriarch provides her daughters and granddaughters with the means to live longer and raise more offspring to adulthood.

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Elephants have even been known to adopt orphans, just because their mothers were once friends. In elephant society friendships count says Wittemyer, “there’s no genetic basis to the relationships, yet repeatedly they will meet with each other, they will spend time with each other. These social bonds have lineage effects, they go down from generations to generation.”

FROM THE FILM: There's a lot of knowledge for the matriarch to pass on to her family.

Not only does she help with taking care of the babies, granny knows where to find water and food, how to tell friend from foe, and how to protect the herd from threats. It’s often the matriarch who will put herself in between danger and the family making herself vulnerable. When she dies, the family scatters and it can take some time to regroup.

Elephant matriarchs are experts in environmental and social knowledge and their children and grandchildren are the recipients of her care. As wisdom trickles down from generation to generation, a single matriarch’s legacy will endure long after she passes.

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