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Anim Reprod Sci. 1998 Oct;53(1-4):19-34.

Chemical signals in the reproduction of Asian (Elephas maximus) and African (Loxodonta africana) elephants.

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Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Oregon Graduate Institute of Science and Technology, Portland 97291, USA.


Asian (Elephas maximus) and African (Loxodonta africana) elephants exhibit polygynous mating that involves female choice of mates and male-male competition for access to females. Chemical signals mediate intersexual and intrasexual interactions associated with reproduction. The need for reliable and honest signals is accentuated by the markedly different social structure of adult males and females. Adult female elephants live in matriarchal herds consisting of a dominant female and several generations of offspring. Adult males are solitary or travel with other males except during breeding periods. Because females have a long 16-week oestrous cycle with a brief 1-week receptive period and a 4-5 year interval between births, a sexually active female is a limited resource. Asian elephant females advertise a forthcoming ovulation by releasing (Z)-7-dodecen-1-yl acetate in their urine during the preovulatory period. African elephants probably produce a sex pheromone as well. Females regularly contact the ano-genital region of other females and show heightened chemosensory responsiveness to urine during the follicular phase. The physiological impacts of this ability to detect reproductive condition (e.g. possible synchronizing or suppressing of oestrus) are uncertain. Males experience an annual period of heightened aggressiveness and highly elevated testosterone concentrations known as musth. Males secrete fluid copiously from their temporal gland and dribble strongly odoriferous urine during musth. Females appear to prefer musth males as mates, and captive Asian females exhibit greater chemosensory responses to urine from males in musth than not. Males in musth are competitively dominant to all other males, even those larger than themselves. Nonmusth males avoid males in musth, and captive Asian bulls show greater interest in musth than nonmusth urine. In captivity subordinate Asian females back away from musth secretions, and females with calves sometimes display protective behaviour. Clearly, chemical signals play an important role in communication by elephants between and within the sexes. Further work is needed to identify more of these chemical messengers and to understand their complete function in mediating reproductive interactions in the elephant social system.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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