Animal IQ

Why Baby Elephants Need Their Grandmothers

We've all heard about the increasing role of grandparents in raising children. According to the AARP, in the years from 2000 to 2010, the number of American children living in grandparent-headed households jumped from 1.5 million to 1.9 million. But it turns out that this is not a uniquely human phenomenon. You know who else needs their grannies? Baby elephants.

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Grandma knows best: a baby elephant with its granny.

All In The Family

A new study has shown that for Asian elephants, grandmothers are the key to babies' survival. Most animals keep reproducing until death, though some species, such as orca whales, elephants, and humans, continue to live for decades after no longer giving birth. Because evolution is centered on reproduction, this has been somewhat puzzling for scientists: what's the use in living to old age if you're no longer producing offspring?

To help answer this question, a team of Finnish researchers observed Asian elephants in Myanmar. What they found was astonishing: if a grandmother lived in the same area as her grand-calf, that calf had eight times lower risk of death. The calf's mother, likewise, produced more offspring, ostensibly because she had less work when it came to raising her own calves and so was free to bear more. They also found that the more calves the grandmother had given birth to, the bigger the effect she had on her grand-calves, showing that more experience in motherhood made her a better grandmother.

It's Cute, But It's Also Important

This study isn't just heartwarming; it has real lessons for conservation, too. Nearly half of baby elephants kept in zoos die in their first years, and elephant reproduction in captivity is also a challenge. This study suggests that zoos would benefit from keeping grandmothers around. "Virpi Lummaa, an author of the study, said in a press release.

"Conservationists and captive population managers could potentially boost the elephant population by simply starting to keep the grandmothers with their offspring, similarly as would be the case in the wild in elephant families."

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