As an elephant gets older, they need to reproduce, and their bodies change to allow this. Elephants show that they are ready to breed by entering a musth period.
Musth is a chemical and hormonal imbalance in male elephants that produces extra testosterone in the blood. An oily fluid called temporin is secreted from the temporal gland behind the eye. This fluid, along with a constant urine stream, gives off a scent that shows females they are ready to mate. Musth happens once a year in adult males.
This article looks at what musth is when it happens, and why.
What is musth?
Musth describes a condition in adult males where high testosterone levels can make them aggressive in finding a mate.
A male elephant’s reproductive success increases with age, and their bodies change to allow this. A state of musth shows that the male is ready to mate. An oily fluid is produced from the temporal gland and runs down the face of the elephant. This liquid is temporin, also known as ichor. The temporal gland can swell up quite dramatically. This fluid contains scents that show females that they are ready to mate.
The fluid is dark and can stain the cheek black. However, this is different from the secretions that elephants put out when excited or stressed, as these happen in females and calves.
A large amount of urine is produced, which also contains pheromones, and this is usually seen as a constant dribble, staining the legs black. The urine is a greenish-yellow colour and smells strong. Urine in musth contains higher amounts of ketones and aldehydes.
Musth is an enormous behavioural and physiological change in the life of an elephant. The elephants can become much more aggressive, with their testosterone levels increasing up to 50 times more than usual.
Not all elephants in musth are aggressive, with some being very docile.
A period of musth can last up to a few months but can also be as short as a few days. The length of time depends on the number of other bulls in the area, the elephant’s age, the condition of their body, and the climate.
Musth gives the bull dominance over all other males within the hierarchy, allowing him better mating opportunities. Females prefer a bull in musth over all others, and the bull will actively seek out the cow in musth.
Larger bulls can often enter musth when receiving olfactory signals that another bull is ready to reproduce to find a suitable mate. This ensures that the best genes are being passed along to future generations.
Musth is a way to signify to females in oestrous that they are ready to mate and to let other bulls know to keep away from them.
Musth came from a Hindi word meaning mischievous and was initially used about Asian elephants but is now used for both Asian and African species.
Do all elephants go into musth?
Not all elephants go into musth but can still mate and produce calves. However, the chance of reproductive success is lower than an elephant in musth.
Bulls usually have a regular musth cycle at around 25 but reach their prime at 40. Females that are in oestrus will usually seek out mates of this age. Musth happens once a year from the time they first enter it.
If there are no older males around then, young bulls will usually come into musth at an earlier age. Sometimes this happens as early as their teens, which can cause problems as they become aggressive to other animals.
Young elephants usually do not enter musth for long as there are generally older, more dominant males around, but this occurs more often and for longer as they get older.
In elephants over 30 or 40, musth can last for several months, and their testosterone levels are higher. A younger elephant has a different smell when in musth to older bulls, with one scientist saying they smell “like a mixture of flowers.”
Signs of musth
It is easy to spot an elephant in musth as they have a dark, oily liquid running down the cheek to the mouth from the temporal gland. The temporal gland is located between the eye and the ear of the elephant. The gland swells to enormous sizes, sometimes as large as a football, although generally about the size of an apple.
It should be noted that not all secretions from the temporal gland signify musth. Both bulls and cows can secrete temporal gland secretion from the temporal gland, although this is much more watery.
Another way to tell if a bull is in musth is if urine is constantly dribbling from the sheath. The area around the sheath becomes darkened as the urine drips down, sometimes gushing out when showing dominance. This spreads the smell to others and leaves scents on the ground for other elephants.
Elephants also show various visual signs that they are in musth. The walk of a bull in musth is different with their head carried high and their chin tucked in with a side to side swinging motion. The ears are spread and held high, moving them one at a time. They create a wave with their ear, thrusting the upper part forward before doing the same with the lower part. These thrusts create a sound like a whip being cracked.
Often taking place alongside the ear wave is a very low rumble. The crack of the ear whip usually comes at the end of the rumble.
To release some pressure on the large, filled temporal glands, males often rest their trunks on one of their tusks. They also mark trees by rubbing the temporal gland on them. Due to their aggressive nature, it is wise for other bulls to stay away from them. Males may throw bushes or other objects at other bulls or vehicles.