Pachyderm Pending blog: the herd at birth

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For elephants, child-rearing is an epic undertaking. It takes a herd.

In their native habitats, Asian elephants live in multi-generational, matriarchal groups led by the oldest female. It's the same at the Oregon Zoo. When 18-year-old Rose-Tu delivers her second calf soon, the zoo's other females will be there to watch, smell, touch and hear the mother as she labors and gives birth.

"As soon as she and her calf get comfortable with each other, the females will come in to inspect the baby and support Rose-Tu," elephant curator Bob Lee said. "The zoo's female elephants have seen births before and they'll know what's happening."

A great deal of excitement surrounds every elephant birth; each herd female becomes an allomother – or child-rearing assistant. They're more commonly known as aunties.

"Shine will probably take over being a very protective auntie, ensuring that big brother Samudra doesn't become too exuberantly playful with the new calf," Lee said. "She is the one who taught Samudra right from wrong."

Shine – the herd matriarch at nearly 30 years old - was also present for the birth of Samudra's mother, Rose-Tu. Lee expects the other auntie, Chendra, to act as more of a playmate for the new calf, which she did, and still does, for Samudra. Samudra has been the center of the herd's attention since he was born in 2008.

"He's always been the baby, and gotten his way – taking food from his mother's mouth, pushing the other elephants around," Lee said. "The aunties have tolerated him."

But Sam's world will dramatically change when his younger sibling arrives.

"He may get some corrections from the other elephants," Lee said. "They'll teach him what the boundaries are, and he'll soon learn how to be an older brother to the new baby."

The calf's father, 40-year-old Tusko, is also the father of Samudra. Tusko will be introduced to the calf within a few months of birth.

"Tusko has been a vital presence in Samudra's life," Lee said. "He taught Sam how to act appropriately as a young bull around the females in the herd and a dominant male elephant. We hope that by learning how to be submissive and accept his role in the herd he will be able to pass that knowledge on to the next generation of young male elephants."

Whether it's a boy or a girl, the new calf will be welcomed into a complex family and, in time, learn from its devoted herd what it takes to be an elephant.