How Do Elephants Mate?

Written by Emmanuel Kingsley
Published: December 30, 2022
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Elephants are the second largest mammals worldwide, second to the blue whale. Elephants, like most mammals, give birth to their young alive and not in eggs. However, you might not exactly know how these animals mate. Do elephants mate for life? Can they mate on a whim, and what factors affect their mating process? There are a lot of unknowns concerning these heavy animals, especially given their size. It is easier to imagine lighter animals like dogs copulating, but elephants are gigantic, reaching over 10,000 pounds.

There are myths that male elephants nibble on the female’s ear to induce pregnancy. This article reveals the science behind mating between elephants, displacing the myths and rumors.    

When Do Elephants Reach Sexual Maturity?

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Elephants reach sexual maturity at about 11 to 14 years of age.

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Sexual maturity is defined as the age of first ovulation in female animals and a dense presence of viable sperm in the males. Bulls often attain maturity about a year or two after the females.

Studies indicate that elephants attain sexual maturity around the mean age of 11 to 14. However, individual elephants sometimes break the norm, reaching maturity at age eight and some at 30.

Generally, maturity in female elephants can be subject to forage resources and local climate, among other ecological factors. Males often stray from their natal herds for periods as they attain maturity, unlike females, that often stay with the herd.

Elephant Heat: What Exactly Is It?

Heat in female elephants is described as the period when a female is receptive to mating, and her hormones promote ovulation. According to reports, the average period between heats is about 16 weeks. Thus, female elephants can only breed for three periods per year. These elephants can get their first heat cycle as early as age nine.

Female elephants do not show any obvious indication of heat like cattle. If a cow elephant is in heat, her vulva will slacken a little, and she might dribble her urine. Occasionally, the female can swat her vulva with her tail or lift her tail to attract males.

Males can tell for certain by sniffing the sexual organ of the females and their urine. Thus, elephant caregivers can often tell if female elephants are in heat by having a male elephant sniff their vulva. The giveaway would be the male’s excitement upon catching the scent of the female on heat. Male elephants can detect sexual pheromones with the Jacobson’s organ in the roof of their mouths.

Elephant Musth: What Exactly Is It?

Musth is a period of heightened sexual activity in male elephants and increased testosterone levels, often occurring in their late teens or early 20s. According to reports, the musth period is characterized by increased aggression, strong urine smell, low-frequency sounds called the musth rumble, and swollen and secreting temporal glands.

Spermatogenesis, the formation of sperm, begins in male elephants at about 10. However, they only produce an adequate quantity once they reach 17. Males experience musth for the first time around this period when their growth in height reduces so that they can put on more weight. They are often large enough to mount females, but they are only successful sometimes since they compete with adult elephants for females.

During musth, male elephants seek out herds of female elephants and fight other males for the right to mate with the females. Sometimes, these fights for dominance might turn fatal.

Musth in young males can last for a couple of days. However, the older they get, the longer the musth period. Bull elephants, about 16 to 35, can have musth periods for a couple of weeks in a row, while males as old as 40 can go through musth for up to three to four months. However, this period reduces once the elephant turns 50.

How Do Elephants Mate?

Elephants mate with the female standing and the male standing behind her almost vertically.

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Mating in elephants often occurs during the female heat cycle. Males need experience, size, and strength to mount females. The experience part is important as the male must know where to put his long curved penis into the female reproductive tract, which is also long and curved.

After fighting off the competition, the male might still have to chase the female around before she is caught. The female remains standing while the male mounts her, standing almost vertically, holding her in place with his weight and forelimbs as he penetrates her reproductive tract. Younger elephants can be pushed off by females quite easily.

Some reports claim that elephant sex often lasts about two minutes, after which the male stays by the female’s side for a while before leaving. According to news reports, females allow larger and older elephants to mate with them for different reasons, such as a higher probability of gestation success and protection from other males. Also, bigger males might have stronger genes that can be passed on to the offspring.

Elephants do not mate for life and are not bound to one another. A female might sometimes mate with another bull during their heat cycle, and a male can also mate with multiple females in a herd.

How Long Are Elephants Pregnant?

Elephant pregnancy lasts for about 22 months.

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Elephants have the longest gestation period worldwide, lasting an average of 22 months. Baby elephants weigh about 200 to 300 pounds when born and stand about three feet tall. However, their large sizes are not the only reason for the long gestation period.

Scientists believe that intelligence might be an influencing factor. Humans and chimpanzees have similar gestation periods of about nine and eight months, respectively, and dolphins, also known as very intelligent, have their pregnancy for up to one year.

It is theorized that elephant birth takes longer to allow the baby’s brain to develop enough to survive outside the womb. It is no wonder that elephants have the largest brain of all terrestrial animals.

Up Next:

What Do Elephants Eat? Their Diet Explained

How Long Are Elephants Pregnant?

Elephant Lifespan: How Long Do Elephants Live?

What’s A Baby Elephant Called & 9 More Amazing Facts!

What Different Colors Are Elephants?

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Stu Porter/Shutterstock.com


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