By Allen, C.R.B., Brent, L.J.N., Motsentwa, T. et al. Importance of old bulls: leaders and followers in collective movements of all-male groups in African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana). Sci Rep 10, 13996 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-70682-y
In long-lived social species, older individuals can provide fitness benefits to their groupmates through the imparting of ecological knowledge. Research in this area has largely focused on females in matrilineal societies where, for example, older female African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) are most effective at making decisions crucial to herd survival, and old post-reproductive female resident killer whales (Orcinus orca) lead collective movements in hunting grounds. In contrast, little is known about the role of older males as leaders in long-lived social species. By analysing leadership patterns of all-male African savannah elephant traveling groups along elephant pathways in Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Botswana, we found that the oldest males were more likely to lead collective movements. Our results challenge the assumption that older male elephants are redundant in the population and raise concerns over the biased removal of old bulls that currently occurs in both legal trophy hunting and illegal poaching. Selective harvesting of older males could have detrimental effects on the wider elephant society through loss of leaders crucial to younger male navigation in unknown, risky environments.
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