New Elephant Moms and Babies Don't Rest After Birth

Keeping pace right away is important for their physical and social health.

African elephant mother and calf

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There’s no maternity leave for elephant mothers and their babies.

New research finds that elephant herds don’t slow down for mothers who have just given birth. Instead, the new moms and their calves are able to keep pace right away with the rest of their group members. This ability is important for the physical and social health of the animals.

“We studied the movements around birth in elephants for two main reasons. Firstly, to increase our understanding of elephant behavior. As a threatened species, it's important we understand the potential implications of reproduction on elephants,” lead author Lucy Taylor from the University of Oxford tells Treehugger.

“Secondly, we were interested in how and to what extent pregnancy, birth, and the presence of a young calf impacted movement in a social species to understand more about collective behavior.”

Elephants are always moving, in constant search for food and water and to avoid danger. They travel in matriarchal groups with members pregnant at different times.

Researchers from the University of Oxford worked in collaboration with the conservation and research group, Save the Elephants. Researchers at Save the Elephants fitted GPS tracking collars on 26 pregnant African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana). The trackers monitored their movement and behavior.

They analyzed daily speed before and after giving birth and they estimated the age of baby elephants based on their size and appearance.

Researchers found the mothers’ average daily speed didn’t change significantly during pregnancy or after birth when traveling with a newborn calf. There was only a slight decrease in speed on the actual day the calf was born.

The ability of an elephant calf to move along with its mother quickly after birth has several advantages.

“First, and most importantly, it enables the mother to meet her nutritional and water requirements, which is essential in order to provide care for the neonatal calf. Alternative strategies, such as hiding the calf may not be effective for elephants due to the distance traveled between resources and the size of the calf,” Taylor says.

“Second, the ability to remain with their family would enable both the mother and calf to access and contribute to social group benefits, including shared ecological knowledge, social benefits, predator protection, and neonatal care from other members of the herd, such as allomothering (babysitting) from teenagers. Finally, the ability to move, including movement away from the birth site, may aid in predator avoidance.”

The findings were published in the journal Animal Behaviour.

Why Elephants Don't Rest

Researchers speculate this ability for newborn babies to keep up with the herd may be why elephants have evolved the longest gestation period of any mammal. After 22 months of development, elephant calves are born more physically advanced than many other animal babies. They are able to stand and walk quickly after birth.

Researchers aren’t sure why the mothers don’t need to rest after giving birth.

‘This result was slightly unexpected—we were expecting to see a slight dip in movement even if it only lasted a few days. I find it remarkable that both the mother and the calf are capable of moving so soon after birth!” Taylor says.

“Even the oldest female in a family herd, the matriarch, can still give birth and lead the group, which I consider to be another demonstration of the strength and resilience of female elephants.”

View Article Sources
  1. Taylor, Lucy A., et al. "Movement Behaviour After Birth Demonstrates Precocial Abilities of African Savannah Elephant, Loxodonta Africana, Calves." Animal Behaviour, vol. 187, 2022, pp. 331-353., doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2022.03.002

  2. "Elephants on the Move." University of Reading.

  3. lead author Lucy Taylor from the University of Oxford

  4. Williams, Sarah C. P. "The Elephant in the Womb." Science, 2012.