The elephant is the largest land mammal, and you may think that because of their size, they have trouble mating. While this is true, they have several adaptations that they use.
Elephants reproduce while standing on land. The bull will balance on the back legs while the forelegs are on the cow’s pelvis. This lasts for less than one minute following a courtship over several days. Elephants give birth every 3 to 4 years to one calf.
Reproduction in elephants is a fascinating topic, and if you ever see it for yourself, you will never forget it.
Bulls will join with other bulls to form a bachelor group once they have left their family unit. Although older bulls can become solitary, younger elephants depend on the company and help of the older bulls.
A sign of dominance between males can be seen when they try to mount each other. This usually happens in water as the buoyant water makes this easy to climb over one another. However, this is also done on land to show dominance over other males to force them into submission.
The bachelor groups change in numbers and composition, and there is little cooperative behaviour with few social bonds.
Dominance among the bachelor group changes over time. Sparring with others shows the hierarchy within the group, with the strongest at the top. However, an elephant showing signs of musth can change the order significantly.
How do elephants know when they are ready to mate?
A female elephant (cow) will advertise that they are in estrus through their scent. Their hormones are passed in their urine, and dung and male elephants (bulls) pick up the scent through their trunks. Bulls will test the waste products by placing their trunks into them.
Bulls will find groups of female elephants to find those in estrus and may travel a long way to find a female. They will test urine by dipping their trunks into it and touching her genitals with their trunk. This gives him information on the cow and whether she is ready for mating. The scent goes up the trunk to a gland in the roof of the mouth called the Jacobson’s organ.
Musth is a period that adult males enter every year for a month or two which is a hormonal and chemical imbalance. A bull in musth will always try to mate. However, bulls do not need to be in a state of musth to mate.
Males will pursue females who will try to avoid them. This lasts until they are tired or allow the male to lay their trunk upon them. At this point, the females generally become submissive, although this is not always the case. The courtship can last for several days, with other bulls kept away by the amorous bull.
The male may rest their trunk, chin, and tusks onto the female’s rear before mounting.
Elephants only mate while on land and not in the water like other large animals, such as hippos. Although elephants can often be seen mounting each other in the water, this is likely to be two bulls playing.
How elephants reproduce
Elephants are good at standing on their hind legs and can be seen doing this when trying to reach the leaves from high branches. Elephants can reach higher than giraffes. The bull rears back, crouching on its back legs, and rests its forelegs on the cow’s pelvis.
An elephant’s penis is flexible and is s-shaped with a curve near the tip. Due to the elephant’s size and weight and its position, the bull has to find the vulva in a short time. Because the penis is so flexible, it can arch up to find the opening. Once found, the bull stands up to reach full penetration.
Elephants do not thrust in the way that other animals do. Instead, the penis does the thrusting for the elephant.
Elephants ejaculate up to 1.5 litres, and the act is usually done in less than a minute. More than one male may try to reproduce with the same female in oestrus.
Because the penis is so flexible, they can also use it to swat flies off their stomach. Because it is so long, it does get hit by the legs when they walk, but it does not drag on the floor as reported elsewhere.
Calf life cycle
Cows give birth to a single calf weighing up to 120 kg after a gestation period of 660 days (22 months.) This usually occurs in the rainy season when there is more food, although this can happen in the drier season if there is enough food.
An abundance of green food makes sure that the mother will lactate during the early months of the calf’s life.
Mature cows give birth every 3 or 4 years, although this depends on conditions and if there are any periods with droughts. This is different for forest elephants, who give birth every 1 or 2 years.
Other elephants will stand around the mother giving birth, facing outwards, looking for predators. They may also assist at the birth by removing the fetal membrane, while others will help the calf to its feet. This is the start of a long joint family responsibility for the young elephant.
After birth, the elephant grows quickly and can reach a weight of up to 1000kg within the next 5 or 6 years. Although elephants continue to grow bigger throughout their life, the rate of growth does decrease. Between the ages of 20 and 30, bulls experience a growth spurt, making them larger than females born at the same time.
Elephants are similar to humans as they continue to survive long after they can reproduce. The matriarch can continue passing on her knowledge, ensuring other elephants’ survival.