Elephants Reproduction, Development and Lifecycle Facts

Elephants are the largest terrestrial mammals. There are some interesting facts about elephant reproduction behavior, development and lifecycle that you can find here. If you read this post, you will learn lots of interesting facts about elephant breeding, pregnancy, and the life cycle.

There are two types of elephants in the world. African elephants and Asian elephants Asian elephants have an average lifespan of 48 years, and African elephants have an average lifespan of 60–70 years. Both males and females can bear children until death. But during this long period, an elephant can give birth to only 4–6 cubs. Because their reproductive process is very long.

Elephants’ Reproductive Maturity

To participate in breeding, the elephant must first be fit for breeding. Elephants take a long time to reach reproductive maturity. Asian elephants reach reproductive capacity at 14 years, and African elephants reach reproductive capacity at 10–12 years. However, during this time, they do not directly participate in reproduction. Reproduction capacity means that an elephant gains membership as a youth in its group but is not yet allowed to bear cubs or participate in reproduction. A young elephant has to wait much longer to participate in breeding.

Elephant Breeding Season and Signs

Musth is the main reproductive sign of male elephants. Male elephants enter the musth when they are ready to breed. Musth is a reproductive trait of male elephants that is a special state of their increased testosterone. During musth, male elephants secrete a type of fluid called temporin from the temporal glands between the eye and the ear of the head. Which shows that the male elephant is ready for breeding. Before entering the musth, the male elephant may leave his group to separate, or join another small group, or be solitary, or, seek a female partner and try to form another group.

Male Elephants Musth
Male Elephants Musth

Female elephants become fertile when their estrous cycle begins. Generally, the estrous cycle of female elephants starts at the age of 14–15 years. Although it takes more time to conceive. Female elephants release pheromones with their urine when the estrous cycle begins. They also start following the calls of male elephants’ musth calls.

Elephants Reproductive Behavior

Asian elephants enter musth at 15 years of age, but musth does not become more intense until 25 years of age. Entering the musth increases the testosterone levels of male elephants, which are about 60 times higher than at other times. As the level of sex hormones in the body increases, so does the body temperature. At the same time, the temporal gland starts releasing hormones, which cause the temporal gland to swell. Swelling of the temporal gland causes pain in the eyes of elephants. Along with such changes in body, the behavior of male elephants also changes. Male elephants exhibit the following reproductive behaviors-

  1. In the intensity of the musth, male elephants try to mate with the female elephant without checking whether the female elephant is ready to breed.
  2. During this time, male elephants urinate by keeping their penis inside the furrow, which causes a spray of urine on the hind legs.
  3. They dig holes in the ground with their trunks or continue to rub against large trees with the temporal gland on the side of the head. By doing this, the pain of the temporal gland decreases, but the condition of the tree worsens.
  4. Sometimes the male elephants in the group clashed with other elephants, sometimes attacking nearby villages.
  5. They make a different call with their mouths to indicate they are in musth. They move one of its ears and swing its head high to attract the female elephant.

Young male elephants enter the musth during the dry season, while older and previously mated male elephants enter the musth during the rainy season. The primary musth lasts 3 to 4 weeks, the secondary musth lasts 4 to 5 weeks, and the final musth lasts 4-5 weeks.Primary and secondary musth occur in young male elephants that have not yet started breeding or are in the final stages of breeding.

How do elephants do mating?

Elephants are polygamous. That is, during reproduction, a female copulates with multiple males, and a male copulates with multiple females. Females show less interest in mating in the summer, whereas most mating occurs in the rainy season. After entering the estrous cycle, the female elephant releases pheromones through her urine and vagina. This way, the female elephant informs the other members of the herd that she is ready to mate.

Elephants Mating
Male and Female Elephants Preparing for Mate

Following the female elephant’s pheromones, male elephants come to mate. The estrous cycle of female elephants lasts 14–16 weeks, with the first 4-6 weeks of the follicular phase and 8–10 weeks of the luteal phase. Ovulation occurs in the luteal phase. Mating during this time makes it more likely for elephants to become pregnant. However, they do mate throughout the estrous cycle.

The male elephants follow the female elephants in the estrus cycle. During this time, they act like guards for the female elephants. The weak and sick male elephants of the group do not stay in the musth. Many times the female elephants follow the musth signals of the male elephant of the other group and approach the male elephant for mating.

Elephants Mating
Elephants Mating in Captivity

A beautiful aspect of elephant social behavior is that female elephants entering the new estrous cycle act fearfully when mating with the older male elephants in the group. The senior female elephant of the group came forward to dispel this fear. They stay close to the new female elephant to provide reassurance and support. During mating, the male elephant places his trunk on the back of the female elephant and engages in sexual intercourse.

Although elephants are the largest and strongest animals, but their mating duration is only 45 seconds. During this period, the male elephant ejaculates in the female elephant’s vagina.

The sperm has to travel 2 meters to reach the ovum, about 6.6 feet, whereas the human sperm has to travel only 3 inches to reach the ovum. A successful conceive requires the union of the ovum and sperm. The luteal phase of the estrous cycle is 8–10 weeks, but the most fertile period is only two to three days. The chances of conception are highest during this period. Elephants can give birth to death, but fertility declines around the age of 45–50.

Homosexuality is also seen in elephants. Recently matured or older male elephants enjoy sexual pleasure by stimulating each other through play and fighting. In captivity, female elephants stimulate each other with their trunks, known as elephant masturbation.

Elephant’s Gestation Period

Elephant Gives Birth
A Female Elephant Gives Birth

Elephants have a gestation period of about two years. This is the longest gestation period among any mammal. Five corpus luteum maintain this long gestation period in the elephant. The main reason for the long gestation period in elephants is the large size and slow development of the baby elephants. Elephants keep their babies in the womb for a long time for proper brain and trunk development. As a result, the baby elephant’s brain develops properly, and the baby can stand up quickly after birth and follow the family.

Elephants Give Birth

Mom Elephants and Newborn Elephants
Newborn Elephants with Mom Elephants

Usually, female elephants give birth in the monsoon or wet season. A newborn baby weighs about 120 kg and is 33 inches long. Only one baby elephant is born at each breeding, but sometimes twins are born, but it is very rare. Despite being in the mother’s womb for a long time, the newborn elephant can recognize family members and know what to do after birth. Baby elephants spend a long time in their mother’s womb to gain this intelligence.

After the baby is born, other adults and young members of the group come and greet the newborn baby by touching it with their trunks. This is the dangerous time when baby elephants are most likely to be preyed upon. Elephant hunters stay around the herd and try to prey on the newborn baby elephants. Mother elephants are hypervigilant during this time to protect their young from predators. So, the mother elephant cannot tolerate the presence of any other animal around her baby, especially the elephant’s predators.

All the elephants in the herd wish the newborn elephant
All the Elephants in the herd wish the Newborn Elephant

Apart from the mother, the 3- to 12-year-old elephants of the herd stay with the baby elephants all the time to protect them from attacking other animals. They serve baby elephants. They are referred to as allomothers or alloparenting.

Newborn Elephants Development

For the first few days after birth, the baby elephant needs help from its mother to stand on its own feet. At this time, baby elephants have poor eyesight, so they have to rely on smell, touch, and hearing. Although the baby elephant is born with a fully formed trunk, but they do not have full control over its trunk during the first week of life.

By the second week of birth, baby elephants can walk fairly well. At this time, they learn to control their trunk more. After about a month, the baby elephants can pick up food with their trunks. They can make full use of their hooves, but they cannot suck water through the trunk. Up to one month old, the baby elephants use their mouths directly to drink water and require the mother’s help.

Although they can put food in their mouth within one month, but they do not eat any other food except mother’s milk for the first three months of birth. During this time, the body gets all its nutrients from the mother’s milk. After three months, baby elephants develop lips, feet, and tusks. From the age of three months, baby elephants begin to eat little plants and grass.

For the first year, baby elephants are more dependent on their mother’s milk. During this time, they eat their mother’s milk every hour for 2-4 minutes.

After one year, baby elephants have fully developed tusks, teeth, lips, and feet. They gain independence in food, although baby elephants feed on their mother’s milk for three to three-and-a-half years.

Baby Elephant Behavior

There are gender differences in behavior among baby elephants. While male elephants fight playfully with each other, female elephants engage in chasing or running with each other.

Elephants Lifespan

An elephant can live up to 60–70 years in the wild. A male elephant in captivity has a record of living up to 86 years.

The Intelligence of Elephants

Male and female elephants mature at 14–15 years. But bisexual elephants take 18 years to mature. Elephants are intelligent mammals. The elephant’s brain is the largest of all land animals, and its structure is similar to the human brain. An elephant’s brain has about 250 billion neurons, more than any other mammal. Also, the temporal lobe area of the elephant has a lot of folds, so the elephant can store a lot of information in its brain. As a result, elephants can store all the techniques for survival in their brains.

For example, where water can be found in the dry season or where to migrate in case of a food shortage and how and which way to go—this information is never deleted from the elephant’s brain. It is believed that elephants create an imaginary map of the large surrounding area that they live in and store it in their brains.

Elephants are on par with dolphins and chimpanzees in terms of intelligence. Elephants can use their feet and trunk to solve their own problems as well as any other problem. Elephants can share feelings, love, sorrows, and joys with their family members. There is a lot of emotion in them. So, if any member of the family is injured or killed, they suffer. They mourn and even cremate their dead members.

Last Word

One of the many reasons for the decline in elephant numbers around the world is elephants’ reproductive cycle. Elephants take a long time to conceive and never give birth to more than one baby at a time. Again, it takes a break of 4-5 years after the birth of a child. As a result, an adult elephant cannot give birth to more than 4-6 cubs in its lifetime.

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