After a gestation period of nearly 2 years, an elephant calf is born into a typically stable family of closely related individuals. Within this social group, the young elephant will spend long years in physical and behavioral development. The eminent sociobiologist Edward Wilson considers social behavior as a set of devices for tracking changes in the environment, and socialization as the sum of social experiences that alter the development of an individual. He emphasizes the potential of species for rapid evolution of social traits as a means of adapting to changing environments.
From the early years of nutritional dependence on its mother (or perhaps occasionally on an aunt), through social interactions with members of the family and elephant groups within the larger population, an individual elephant experiences a complex social life that reaches into this multitier society during its lifetime. The rich repertoire of behavior exhibited by an adult elephant reflects this long history of social interactions and learning.
While the development of social behavior is a continuous process, the primatologist Frank Poirier defined four stages for the sake of convenience: (1) the neonatal period of complete dependence of infant on the mother; (2) the transition period, in which some adult locomotor and feeding patterns are seen; (3) peer socialization, during which much of the contact is with members of the group other than the mother; and (4) the juvenile-subadult period, during which infantile patterns disappear and adult patterns, including sexual be havior, emerge. This scheme, although developed for primate societies, also broadly holds true for the elephant.
One outcome of this prolonged social exchange among individuals and with their environment is adult-regulated social organization. In fact, the elephant is believed to have one of the most advanced mammalian social organizations. In Edward Wilson's scheme, this would rank among or very close to the highest grades, that of the "generalized learner," among animal social systems. Such animals have a large brain capable of considerable memory and insight learning. Most behaviors are shaped by complex episodes of learning based on the context in which stimuli are received. Socialization is a prolonged and complex process, especially so in a long-lived creature such as the elephant. This is also dependent on recognition of individuals and events through time. The key social feature of such an animal is a perception of history.
The rich fabric of elephant social life has not been unraveled to the extent it has been for other mammals, such as primates and carnivores, or even for social insects. One reason for this is the long generation time in elephants, which allows only snapshots of its social life during the study period of human observers. This chapter provides some of these glimpses of social behavior and development within the family setting in elephant society.
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