We’ve temporarily halted field work due to the pandemic. So, we thought this was a good time to bring you some stories from our archives of field notes! In honor of Mother’s Day, here’s an incident that helped us appreciate just how little we understand about what goes on beneath the surface of an elephant’s mind. Happy Mother’s Day!
August 22 2012
Can you tell what’s going on in this video? Well, if you know the elephants individually, there’s quite an intriguing story behind it. Read on to see what’s happening, and see if you can follow the video…
We were out on the reservoir in the late evening when we encountered a big group of twenty or more elephants scattered about. We knew the adults very well, and we knew their youngest calves. Ayesha had a tiny tot a few months old, the first new baby she’d had in many years. There were two others that were almost the same size, just slightly older, belonging to Aruni and Ariana. Aruni and Ariana seemed very close, they were initially identified in 2005 side-by-side, and even now are often together. Their calves often follow each other around. In addition there were several others in the herd that were part of the larger, fluid network. After about 15 minutes or so, they were joined by two adults from another family, Deepika and Dinusha, along with some calves.
Aruni came up and lightly touched Dinusha in casual greeting. We think Aruni is a fair bit older than either of these two Ds. Deepika was not always associated with the A’s – she spent lot of time with another unit, the Ks (all members of which were presumably related due to strong family resemblances). Neither was she always with her namesake, Deepa, who we had initially thought to be her mother. In the herd was also , still with a number instead of a name because we couldn’t quite decide what family she belonged to (our most recent attempt groups her statistically with the As).
We had started filming Ayesha’s calf because we had an interest in keeping track of it and since we were out in the open. She had nursed earlier, and now Ayesha was grazing some distance away. Suddenly for no apparent reason, the baby started roaring and running about. Surprisingly, none of the older animals responded, not even her own mother. Aruni’s calf, however, gave a few short restless barks and chirps. As Ayesha’s calf continued wailing, Aruni and a few juveniles made a brisk move forward. It looked as though Aruni’s calf was the one that wanted to head over and investigate, but its mother and others gently made it stay put, as if trying to say “mind your own business.”
Soon Ariana’s calf, also agitated by now, started making a ruckus as well. It had the misfortune of standing next to Deepika, who first sent a leg over its back, and then gave it such a wallop that it fell over flailing, before scrambling away with a scream. An older calf escorted it away as Deepika paced in menacing slow-motion toward them. Ariana meanwhile continued to graze unperturbed.
Meanwhile, a teenager had come over to Ayesha’s baby and was now escorting it back toward Ayesha. But before they got to her, the calf pelted over toward  and her calf. Though Ayesha herself was just about two meters away, neither mother nor baby made any attempt to get together. Ayesha’s baby hovered about the legs of  and her own calf, who immediately started nursing – just a tad possessively it seemed (“Er – this is MY mom!”). Nothing doing – the Ayesha’s baby again ran back the way it had come (i.e. AWAY from her mother)! At this point we were wondering if what on earth was wrong with the mother, Ayesha – didn’t she recognize her baby’s calls at all? And did the baby baby have any idea who its mother was in the first place?
Now we have to say, it would have been very surprising if mother and baby didn’t know one another. After all, as anyone who has seen the epic March of The Penguins knows – penguin mothers (and fathers) and chicks recognize one another despite the huge crowded colonies they have to find their way through. So do bats, with far smaller brains. Baboons not only know their own kin, but playback experiments have shown they even know which baby belongs to whom, something referred to as “third-party social recognition”. Surely, this was no challenge for elephants, with their enormous brains, complex vocal communication, and prodigious memories?
The baby, still roaring at the top of its lungs, was now hovering about . A well-aimed kick by  sent her away (elephants can be rough with their young!). In response to this fresh burst of screaming now a different older teenager actually ran up to the baby and trumpeted, bouncing her trunk on the ground. It was as clear a message of “Stop it!” as I’ve ever seen. The two of them again moved toward .
FINALLY, amazingly, Ayesha came up to take charge of her wayward calf. So she DID know what was going on! Standing side-by-side with  she let the calf nurse, touching the side of ’s mouth a bit apologetically, before moving a little way off and continuing to graze. The subadult who had earlier played escort came up to observe and flapped her ears contentedly. This had us in fits of giggles – had Ayesha just been ignoring her on purpose all this time until the baby made herself such a nuisance among the rest of the group that she simply HAD to react? Just like humans, elephant moms try to conserve their energy by not responding to every fit their toddler throws. Clearly, Ayesha had mastered this skill spectacularly, to the detriment of everyone else around her.
What’s surprising is that mother and baby had not been separated by more than a few meters the whole time, and she had nursed shortly before so she couldn’t be that hungry. She was not obviously frightened of anything either. Still more mysterious, the calf persisted in screaming even after all of this. Perhaps it had a stomach ache or some other problem, just as human babies sometimes experience colic. As the sun was starting to set, we had to leave them there, amused and amazed at this precious little glimpse into the workings of elephants’ minds.
New for 2020: Your chance to adopt a baby elephant! Support our work by adopting a REAL baby elephant! The digital adoption kit includes a certificate, photos and details of your chosen calf, and an optional plush toy.
Learn more about the elephants by becoming a sponsor today >