Elephant Life Cycle - Baby

The baby stage of the elephant's life extends from birth until complete weaning, which can be anywhere between 5 and 10 years of age. Newborn babies weigh approximately 100kg and are about 90 cm high at their shoulders. At this stage, they grow and develop quickly, and consume over 11 litres of milk at birth ! At birth, their brains are already about 40% of the size of the adult's brain, although their bodies are only about 2% to 4% of that of an adult's.

Calves are cared for by their mothers but, because of the matriarchal structure of the herd, other cows also participate in the care and rearing of the young animal. In fact, during the birth, a group of elephants are commonly spotted waiting around the mother to welcome the newborn into the world. Once born, the calf is greeted by loud trumpeting and screaming. Cows even secrete a liquid from their temporal glands on the sides of their heads for this occasion. Involving the younger cows in the assistance of the mother and her calf provides key preparation for them so that they are able to care for their own young when they reach an appropriate age. The calf has to stand up almost immediately in order to drink some of the vital nutrient-rich milk from its mother, and she helps it to its feet almost immediately to allow him to reach her nipples. Despite prior training from older cows, first-time mothers can still feel quite awkward around new calves, experiencing many of the same emotions and anxieties as human mothers.

Although weaning may continue until the calf is 10 years old, it may be accelerated by the arrival of a sibling (which can take place 2.5 years after the first calf). However, for the first 3 to 5 years, babies are still dependant on their mothers for their physical and emotional development. As they stick close to their mother and the matriarchal herd, young ones develop socially too, as they are constantly being stimulated by social contact with other mothers and their calves.

Many animals brains do not need to develop very much after birth as they are governed mainly by instinct. Elephants, however, are more like humans. After birth, they begin to absorb stimuli and social norms like a sponge. This is, therefore, a vital stage for them, in which they learn much about their behavior and the skills they will need to survive according to the herd into which they are born. This can be likened to human "cultures", which determine different values and morals within that specific culture.

Interestingly, male and female calves are raised differently. Mothers were found to interact in a certain way according to the sex of the calf. In addition, female calves tend to suckle less, but stay with their mothers for longer than the males. Males will branch off into bachelor pods during adolescence, while females will probably stick to the main herd until adulthood and even death.

As newborns, calves spend most of their time eating, sleeping and travelling with their mothers. From 1 to 5 years of age, though, this pattern changes slightly and the calves do not travel and rest as much, but spend the majority of their time feeding to build strength and energy reserves. The calf only suckles exclusively for the first 3 months. Thereafter, although the calf is dependent on its mother for nutrition, its diet will include vegetation. The amount of time spent suckling decreases with age, and they can be weaned any time between the ages of 5 and 10 years.

This phase is followed by adolescence, an exciting time when the elephant establishes its identity and creates a social place for itself within the herd.