Warming Could Devastate Older Elephants, Sending Ripples Through Herds

African elephants.

African elephants. Clinton Mwebaze / WCS

The loss of older African elephants to worsening heat and drought poses a grave threat to younger members of their herds, a new study warns.

The forest elephants of Central Africa are critically endangered, having been driven to the edge of extinction by poaching, forest loss, and, increasingly, drought. For the new study, scientists modeled the impact of future warming on both young and old forest elephants.

The research, published in PLOS Sustainability and Transformation, found that older elephant are highly vulnerable to even modest warming, which will bring yet more drought and fire and fuel the spread of disease. Climate change, authors wrote, “has the potential to eliminate” elephants over the age of 40, threatening the survival of their herds.

“Elephants are matriarchal — their leaders are the older cows, and the herds depend on their wisdom, long memories, and ability to outsmart prey, and if they are lost to changing climate, it will wreak havoc on the surviving, younger herds,” said Simon Nampindo, who undertook the research as a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Other research shows, for instance, that young males are more reckless and aggressive when older elephants are not around.

The loss of older elephants would also impact the wider landscape, researchers say, as elephants shape their surroundings by dispersing the seeds of plants they eat and nourishing the soil with their dung.


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