Playful pachyderms: why elephants have a sense of humour

A good play session can infect an entire elephant family.Play amongst young animals trains growing bodies and develops skills and reflexes crucial for survival. This is especially true for elephants.

But both male and female elephants continue to play even into adulthood, and it’s an important factor in their social charisma. For us in Amboseli, it’s also a precious sign that the elephants feel secure and that times are good for them.

The long-term survival value of this behaviour hadn’t been well studied or understood until earlier this year when Prof. Phyllis Lee and Dr. Cynthia Moss published a paper on elephant play in Amboseli, capitalizing on the perspective that only our long-term study is so uniquely able to provide.

WATCH: Barbara in her mid-sixties getting some fantastic water action in Amboseli.

Elephants play in different ways. Some use stones, bones, plants or sticks. They invite each other (and sometimes researchers) to play.Playing with sticks is fun, especially if someone has the other end.

Elephants of all ages play with other animals, too, chasing and vocalising with exaggerated body movements; usually the recipients of their advances are unimpressed.
Elephants don’t always choose willing playmates.The “floppy run” is a hallmark of playing elephants – loose limbed and heads swinging. They’ll trumpet, snort and rumble, making lots of noise. Sometimes elephants will drop to their knees and may even “walk” along in this way for a few steps.
Males and females play in different ways, even from a young age.Shortcake kneels down during a play session.

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.

All this silliness hides some serious purpose.

Young males use play to enable relaxed contacts with strangers, helping them learn about future friends, associates and the males they have to compete with as adults. Males leaving their families must learn to use different areas in the company of other males, and they have to survive for many years before they can successfully compete for access to females.

Males establish lifelong friendships that provide social support and the means to learn about and avoid danger. Play may be one way males can test the trustworthiness of potential friends, to decide who to hang out with and who to stay clear of. Play also maintains friendships, with gentle wrestling and playful body shoves.A bit of sunset bromance: a friendly jostle between males.Males who are friends will space their musth (sexually active) periods and reduce their competition with each other.

Females use play one of their many strategies to sustain their social, protective and leadership roles within families. Young females play with calves, lying down to encourage climbing and wriggling games, and even older females can use this tactic to engage with friends.Anghared lies down and wriggles in front of her friend Anwyn.Because elephant personality is such an important part of elephant society, our research team decided to explore ways of describing these markers.

When we did so (in a small study on females that we would like very much to expand), playfulness emerged as the second most important marker after leadership, just above gentleness in our scales.

In young females, we have found that the traits of leadership and playfulness are closely associated. We think it likely that popularity and sociability are important determinant factors in shaping good leaders, and playfulness is an expression of these attributes.

Our data show a fascinating 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.

It’s just another of the subtleties of elephants that you only get from knowing elephants as individuals and tracking their lives. A privilege I wouldn’t give up for the world.

--VF

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