1 Tahrcountry Musings: Elephants - Age and enhanced ability to make crucial decisions

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Elephants - Age and enhanced ability to make crucial decisions

Leadership in elephants: the adaptive value of age
 March 16, 201110.1098/rspb.2011.0168 Proc. R. Soc. B

This paper makes very interesting reading.
The value of age is well recognized in human societies. Older individuals with vast and varied experience often emerge as leaders in tasks that call for specialized knowledge. Despite this awareness about what happens in human beings no detailed study has so far been done to find the nexus between age and the ability to make crucial decisions in other cognitively advanced social species.
Here the researchers used a novel playback paradigm to demonstrate that in African elephants (Loxodonta africana), age affects the ability of matriarchs to make ecologically relevant decisions in a domain critical to survival—the assessment of predatory threat. 
The researchers found that while groups consistently adjust their defensive behaviour to the greater threat of three roaring lions versus one, families with younger matriarchs typically under-reacted to roars from male lions despite the severe danger they represent. Sensitivity to this key develops exponentially with matriarch age. It is best developed in the oldest matriarchs, who are likely to have accumulated the most experience.
The researchers say their study provides the first empirical evidence that individuals within a social group may derive significant benefits from the influence of an older leader because of their enhanced ability to make crucial decisions about predatory threat, generating important insights into selection for longevity in cognitively advanced social mammals.

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