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Oestrous Behaviour and Female Choice in the African Elephant

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1. During the course of an eight year field study of African elephants in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, from September, 1972 to December, 1980, females were seen exhibiting oestrous behaviour on 154 occasions, during which 43 copulations were witnessed. 2. Five categories of oestrous behaviour are described: a) wariness, b) the oestrous walk, c) the chase, d) mounting, and e) consort behaviour. 3. The oestrous behaviour as described was found to be temporally associated with ovulation, as judged by conceptions, in 70.7% of 58 cases. 4. The duration of oestrous periods is estimated at 2-6 days. 5. On average Amboseli females conceived once every 5 years and for each of these conceptions the female may only have been in oestrus once. 6. Evidence from the Amboseli study suggests that some females may exercise choice in mating partners. For example, females were able to elude their pursuers in 69.4% of all chases (n = 134). Observation of female behaviour during oestrus suggested that some females preferred to mate with males in the largest size class, particularly those in musth. 7. Two possible short-term advantages to females exercising choice in mating partners are suggested: a) avoidance of harassment from other bulls; and b) Large males in musth may be more likely to impregnate a female. 8. A possible long-term advantage to mating with a Large, and therefore older, male could be his ability to pass on a trait for longevity. 9. Although females may be exercising choice among the size/age classes, male-male competition among the Large males may override female choice on the individual level.

Affiliations: 1: Animal Research and Conservation Centre, New York Zoological Society, Bronx Park, New York, U.S.A.

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