Hörner, F., Oerke, A.-K., Müller, D. W. H. et al. 2021. Monitoring behaviour in African elephants during introduction into a new group: Differences between related and unrelated animals. Animals 11(10), 2990.
The introduction of elephants into new groups is necessary for breeding programmes. However, behavioural studies on the reactions of these animals at first encounters are missing. In the present study, female African elephants (Loxodonta africana) living in zoos were observed during unifications with unfamiliar elephants (introduction of two to one females and one to two females; n = 6) and reunifications with related elephants (two mother–daughter-pairs; n = 4) that were separated for 2 and 12 years, respectively. First encounters of the elephants were observed and recorded by scan sampling. The parameters measured were (a) signs of the characteristic Greeting Ceremony, (b) distance to the fence separating the elephants during first contact, and (c) time until trunks touched for the first time. The data were statistically analysed with SPSS. The results showed that related elephants performed a full Greeting Ceremony on reunifications. Unrelated elephants only expressed a minor greeting. During first encounters, related elephants predominantly showed affiliative behaviour (p = 0.001), whilst unrelated elephants expressed more agonistic behaviour (p = 0.001). The distance to the fence was significantly smaller for related elephants than for unrelated elephants (p = 0.038). First contact of trunks occurred on average after 3.00 s. in related elephants and 1026.25 s. in unrelated elephants. These findings indicate that related elephants recognise their kin after up to 12 years of separation, meet them with a full Greeting Ceremony during reunification, and seek contact to the related elephant, while unrelated elephants are hesitant during unifications with unfamiliar elephants and express more agonistic behaviour. The results testify that zoo elephants show the same species-specific social behaviour as their conspecifics in the wild. It also confirms the cognitive abilities of elephants and the significance of matrilines for breeding programmes.