Wondering who runs the world? Just ask Beyonce — yes, girls. As true as that is in human society (and we know we can do better), it is even more true in elephant society.
It is a point worth raising on International Day of the Girl (#DayoftheGirl), a UN social-awareness day since 2012 that “aims to highlight and address the needs and challenges girls face, while promoting girls' empowerment and the fulfillment of their human rights.”
In the elephant world, every day is #DayoftheGirl — at least in terms of the structure of elephant families.
Food Finders: “Elephant families revolve around females,” observes Vicki Fishlock, the Resident Scientist at the Amboseli Elephant Research Project (AERP, a Moving Giants “Elephant Champion”), which has closely studied elephant societies in the wild). “Males leave at puberty and become socially independent, but females remain within their families for their whole lives. They rear their calves alongside their mothers, grandmothers, sisters and aunts."
“When food is scarce," adds Fishlock, "elephants will spend more time with just one or two other family members and their calves, rather than with the whole family together….When they’re together, family members take their cues from the matriarch — as the leader, her decisions influence when the family eats and where, when they spend time with other elephants, and when to leave the large groups of animals that form around feeding and drinking sites….Since old females have a lot of experience in getting the most from the environment, it usually profits the rest of the members to follow her lead.”
Pachyderm Pollsters: Elephant societies might be more democratic than, ahem, certain human ones.
Elephant Voices (another Moving Giants “Elephant Champion”) reports that "Successful matriarchs are not self-appointed leaders of their family; they are leaders because members of their family respect them, and they are respected because they have proven over the years that they can be trusted to make wise decisions in a time of crisis. Through the years older females become ‘repositories’ of social and ecological knowledge. So natural leadership qualities (personality) and long experience combined are the makings of a wise matriarch. Individuals living in families with older, more experienced matriarchs seem to gain more (in terms of survivorship) from her experience."
The report also notes that a good matriarch holds a family together. “Many families split up soon after the death of a matriarch and we believe that this may be partly related to conflict within the group over the new leader.”
Staying Alive: Listening to your matriarch can help you live longer. So found a study out of Tangarire National Park in Tanzania, reported by the Washington Post, which noted that “groups led by older matriarchs might have a survival advantage…. In 1993, infant elephant death rates rose from an annual average of just 2 percent to around 20 percent during a nine-month period of drought. With their dry-season refuge parched, some family groups stayed in the park while others made off for places unknown. Young mothers were far more likely than older ones to stay put and to lose calves, and families that migrated out of the park had lower mortality than those that remained. Since matriarchs lead long-distance group movements, this suggests that older females provide a survival advantage for their extended family.”
Respect Your Elders: Yes, today is International Day of the Girl, but it is also important to respect your mamas. A study by The Royal Society (a fellowship of "many of the world's most eminent scientists" and "the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence") found that older female elephant matriarchs had more responsible reactions to protecting their families from lion threats than younger matriarchs.
“Although it is often assumed that lionesses do most of the hunting," notes the report, "male lions are in fact considerably more effective and successful predators when it comes to targeting the largest prey—namely elephants and buffalo.”
So how a matriarch reacts to the threat of a male lion is critical. “While groups consistently adjust their defensive behaviour to the greater threat of three roaring lions versus one, families with younger matriarchs typically under-react to roars from male lions despite the severe danger they represent.”