Home / News / World News / Understanding an Elephant's Playful Side
By: The Elephant Sanctuary

Understanding an Elephant's Playful Side

By Jenna Iacurci Jan 27, 2015 Being playful and having a sense of humor may often be considered...

By Jenna Iacurci
Jan 27, 2015

Elephants playing
Being playful and having a sense of humor may often be considered unique to humans, but new research now finds that elephants have a teasing, lighthearted side too that is important for developing social and physical skills crucial for survival. (Photo : Kunalk278/Wikimedia Commons)

Being playful and having a sense of humor may often be considered unique to humans, but new research now finds that elephants have a teasing, lighthearted side too that is important for developing social and physical skills crucial for survival.

For African elephants (Loxodonta africana), play isn't just something reserved for their younger years; both male and female elephants partake in good ole fashioned fun well into their 40s and 50s (the species typically lives up to around 70 years). However, scientists have little understanding as to how this behavior benefits their long-term survival.

So to get to the bottom, researchers Professor Phyllis Lee and Dr. Cynthia Moss studied a group of playful pachyderms from birth to adulthood for a 35-year period in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. They published their findings in the journal Animal Behavior and Cognition.

What they found was that elephants play in a variety of ways, their sense of humor differing among males and females. And as expected, younger tuskers played the most, though this childish innocence is not completely lost as the animals got older.

Elephants are very creative when they play, sometimes using bones, stones, plants or sticks. Perhaps the most recognized playful behavior among these pachyderms is the hallmark "floppy run," in which they trot with their giant Dumbo-like ears swinging side-to-side, trumpeting and snorting all the while.

And even from a young age, males and females start to differ in their teasing tactics.

"Male calves are more likely to engage in wrestling games, whereas young females mostly play what we call 'the enemies game,' thrashing through vegetation, whirling and trumpeting," writer Vicky Fishlock wrote in the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

Elephants playing
(Photo: Pixabay)

Lee and Moss believe when it comes to males, they play in order to become more relaxed around strangers and when making new friends. This is also a clever way of figuring out what their future mating competitors are like. In the case of close friends, some males may even space out their sexually active periods in order to reduce competition with one another.

Females, on the other hand, "use play as one of the many mechanisms for sustaining their social, protective and leadership roles within families," the researchers wrote.

Elephants have a highly matriarchal society in which mothers teach their calves many of the social skills necessary to survive. Calves not only rely on their elders for food, protection and guidance, but to essentially learn how to be an elephant. According to National Geographic, young females with stay with their herd for most, if not all, of their lives, whereas males become independent by the age of five and may even leave the herd entirely when they reach adulthood.

So the fact that the study shows a significant link between the traits of leadership and playfulness indicates that play is more than just behavior with no immediate purpose. It's likely that it's an important factor in shaping good future leaders.

In addition to shaping future matriarchs of the group, the researchers also found a long-term association between play and survival.

"Elephant calves who were particularly playful were also the individuals best able to cope with environmental stresses (such as droughts) and had a reduced risk of dying as adults," read the IFAW website.

Along with these types of benefits, however, come costs. For example, as any parent knows, play can sometimes result in injury, and among elephants, can even make them more vulnerable to predation.

The study authors note that much more research needs to be done to better determine the long-term consequences (and benefits) of playful practices.

"For species such as elephants, the very length of their lives and the complexity of accumulated experiences over a lifespan suggest that whatever play's functions might be - immediate or delayed - detection of consequences could be difficult," they wrote.

African elephant numbers have drastically dwindled in recent years from millions to just 300,000 today due to the ivory trade. The species is currently classified as "vulnerable" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List

<  Previous Next  >

Current Residents

Learn More Donate