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Raging Bulls Lack Wisdom

December 08, 2017

In the November 4, 2017 issue of The Economist there was a paleontology article entitled Mammoth Society Seems to Have Been Like That of Modern Elephants. It is unlikely many of you follow paleontology articles but this particular one addresses the ancient mammoth social structure relative to the behavior of elephants in today's world. It is widely recognized that elephants live in social groups led by a matriarch that exclude mature males. Once bull elephants achieve sexual maturity they leave the group and run wild on their own.

The author observed this pattern from a helicopter over a wild elephant range on the Ugandan side of Lake Edward. Helicopters not only provide the best vantage point, they also protect the occupants from the various rogue guerrilla armies that operate in the area. You will note the family of female African elephants and young males moving through the jungle as a group.

Further along we encountered a solitary raging bull crashing through the jungle on his own.

Elephants living in groups are repositories of information that is handed down from many generations that preceded them. The most important aspect of that knowledge is the areas of their vast habitats that contain dangers such as boiling hot springs and sink holes. Therefore, you would suspect that the males are much more likely to fall victim to such traps given their short period of time with the wise matriarchs.

Patricia Pecnerova and Love Dalen of the Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, Sweden decided to study whether mammoths followed a similar social pattern to today's elephants. They sought to find evidence from well-preserved mammoths that were thought to have died in mud flows or in pools where they drowned. Moreover, fossilized foot prints supported the notion that, like their genetic successors, mammoth followed the same matriarchal society.

A DNA analysis of the remains of 98 mammoth skeletons indicate two-thirds of the mammoths were males. Therefore, the preservation bias in the study is that the best-preserved skeletons arose from animals that were buried in hot springs, marshes, crevasses and sinkholes and were more likely to be preserved for posterity than those who died in the open air. Accordingly, adult males who walked alone, lacking the historical knowledge shared by the larger group, were far more likely to suffer an untimely death. Perhaps that is not unlike the human society of today's world.

To bring the behavior of bull elephants into the world of The Elephant Story, male elephants are a bad choice for elephant polo. Unlike African elephants and ancient mammoth, Asian female elephants do not have tusks. However, apart from tusks, the behavioral patterns of bull elephants do not blend well with females in competition. Moreover, their prominent tusks provide a certain lethal side to elephants and players being grouped together in search of a small ball.

The exception to that generalization is Khun Khan and his elephant Pepsi shown below. A video of the two of them can be seen in The Nikkei Asian Review video Elephant Polo: Preservation or Commercialism? at

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