Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family

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Cynthia Moss has studied the elephants in Kenya's Amboseli National Park for over twenty-seven years. Her long-term research has revealed much of what we now know about these complex and intelligent animals. Here she chronicles the lives of the members of the T families led by matriarchs Teresia, Slit Ear, Torn Ear, Tania, and Tuskless. With a new afterword catching up on the families and covering current conservation issues, Moss's story will continue to fascinate animal lovers.

"One is soon swept away by this ...

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Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family

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Cynthia Moss has studied the elephants in Kenya's Amboseli National Park for over twenty-seven years. Her long-term research has revealed much of what we now know about these complex and intelligent animals. Here she chronicles the lives of the members of the T families led by matriarchs Teresia, Slit Ear, Torn Ear, Tania, and Tuskless. With a new afterword catching up on the families and covering current conservation issues, Moss's story will continue to fascinate animal lovers.

"One is soon swept away by this 'Babar' for adults. By the end, one even begins to feel an aversion for people. One wants to curse human civilization and cry out, 'Now God stand up for the elephants!'"—Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, New York Times

"Moss speaks to the general reader, with charm as well as scientific authority. . . . [An] elegantly written and ingeniously structured account." —Raymond Sokolov, Wall Street Journal

"Moss tells the story in a style so conversational . . . that I felt like a privileged visitor riding beside her in her rickety Land-Rover as she showed me around the park." —Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, New York Times Book Review

"A prose-poem celebrating a species from which we could learn some moral as well as zoological lessons." —Chicago Tribune

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Editorial Reviews

Wall Street Journal
Moss speaks to the general reader, with charm as well as scientific authority. . . . [An] elegantly written and ingeniously structured account.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Amboseli National Park, near Mt. Kilimanjaro in southern Kenya, is home ground to some 600 elephants; this herd has been relatively free from human interference and was a major focus for field study. Moss, author of Portraits in the Wild, has been involved with the elephants of Amboseli since 1973; she and her colleagues have made a substantial contribution to our knowledge of elephant biology and behavior. Here, she follows one extended family through 13 years of good times and bad times, observing details of their daily lives. The book is organized by year and topic: each chapter begins with a synthesized narrative that introduces a single phase of lifesuch as mating, migration, social behavior, births and calves (this is the first study of elephant newborns and their development)that relates to family history. This is a captivating story of individual animals', rather than the author's, adventures. Moss affirms the old tale about elephants assisting one of their own who is injured or dying; she also reports that they recognize bare and bleached bones of their species. Any reader interested in animals will be captivated. Photos. (March)
Library Journal
Moss builds upon earlier elephant studies, such as Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton's Among the Elephants (1975), by producing a complete census of the elephants in one area, Amboseli National Park in Kenya, and focusing on population dynamics and such little-understood behavior as childbearing and -raising. Moss focuses on a single family and uses semi-fictionalized episodes written from the elephants' point of view to generate sympathy, but also provides detailed and objective information. Her final chapter addresses the problems of elephant control and conservation, arguing pragmatically that ivory dealers have a stake in preserving the species. Suitable for both general libraries and zoological collections. Beth Clewis, S.I.L.S., Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
At the base of Kilimajaro in southern Kenya rests Amboseli, a small national park of 150 square miles, home to lions, leopards, cheetahs, rhinos, giraffes, buffaloes, zebras, wildebeests, and elephants. Covering 13 years, Moss's chronicle of the elephants of Amboseli comprises chapters that are each divided into three parts. Beginning with a semifictional scene in the lives of a particular elephant family<-->a mixture of site-specific observed activity filled in with observations of other elephants at other times, as well as accumulated knowledge of elephant behavior<-->each chapter continues with a particular theme such as mating, social organization, or population dynamics. The final third of each chapter is a report on developments in the members of a particular family. Moss includes a family tree to keep track of the names of family members, two maps to keep track of movements, and one diagram of social relationships. This 1988 reprint of the original publication contains a new afterword. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226542379
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/2000
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 364
  • Sales rank: 287,210
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Cynthia F. Moss is a professor of psychology and member of the Institute for Systems Research at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the coeditor of Neuroethological Studies on Cognitive and Perceptual Processes.

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Read an Excerpt

Elephant Memories

Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family

By Cynthia Moss

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2000 Cynthia Moss
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-54237-9


An Amboseli Day


In the early morning light, the large gray forms moved slowly, deliberately, and nearly silently along a well-worn path amongst lava boulders and small thorny Balanites trees. They walked in single file with a large female with long, upcurved tusks at the lead, many calves of varying sizes and ages along with more adult females in the center, and a straight-tusked, ancient, but immensely dignified female at the rear. Behind them rose the overwhelmingly dominant feature of the landscape — the 19,340-foot snow-capped peak of Kilimanjaro. The elephants headed north, away from the mountain; they walked without stopping to rest or feed, as if they had an appointment at a prearranged place.

Eventually they emerged into a habitat of open pan with no trees and little other vegetation. Here the quiet sluff, sluff of their feet kicked up the fine alkaline dust and their outlines became hazy. They did not linger here either, but continued on until abruptly the dry, bare ground gave way to lush, green vegetation interspersed with open water dotted with and surrounded by myriad water birds: ducks, geese, ibises, herons, cranes, plovers, jacanas, and many more. Other animals gathered along the edge of the swamp: zebras, wildebeests, reed-bucks, waterbucks, and buffaloes. The elephants kept on their course, ignoring these smaller species, who stepped discreetly out of the way.

On reaching the swamp, the elephants spread out. Some began to feed immediately while still walking, snatching up large mouthfuls of the dark, green Cynodon dactylon grass, others continued on a straight course, and all arrived together at a channel of clear running water. Each of the adult females dipped the tip of her trunk into the stream, sucked the water up into her trunk, lifted her head up and back, placed the trunk in her mouth, and let the water flow back down her trunk and down her throat while swallowing at the same time. Most of the calves used the same technique, but one young calf was not yet adept with his trunk and he knelt down and drank with his mouth.

When they finished drinking some went on into the swamp and started feeding in earnest, while others walked over to a depression where a mud wallow had formed. The adults splashed themselves with the dark, glutinous mud by first picking it up in the curve of their trunks and then flinging it onto their chests, backs, sides, and heads. The mud hitting their bodies made a sharp, wet slapping sound. Soon they turned from a light gray to mostly glistening black. The calves, showing less restraint, waded right into the wallow and flopped down on their sides and then writhed and wriggled in the mud until one side, including head, ears, and eyes, was completely covered in mud. Then they sat up and flopped over to the other side. Young calves took the opportunity to climb on the older ones as soon as they were down, and in the process, got covered in mud themselves. Eventually there was a great heap of youngsters completely filling the mud wallow. Slowly they disentangled themselves and struggled out of the mud wallow, slipping and sliding up the small bank.

The calves joined the adults, who were now moving deeper and deeper into the swamp. There the elephants found grasses, sedges, including papyrus, and succulent creeping herbs. They ate steadily, building to a rhythm: first twisting the trunk around a bunch of vegetation, pulling to one side and ripping the bunch free, then placing it in the mouth, and immediately reaching for more as they chewed. Some kinds of plants came out by the roots and with these the elephants bit off the part that was palatable and let the other drop. The small calves found less that they could handle, only young shoots here and there and tender creepers. These younger calves also had some trouble trying to follow their mothers through the dense vegetation and deep water and at times they had to swim from one clump of vegetation to the next.

The elephants fed continuously until midday, when they moved to higher, dry ground, where they found a bare patch of dusty soil. They scooped the dust up in their trunk tips and blew it out over their heads and backs. Now they gathered together in a tight group, nearly a circle, standing close together, some touching. One female rubbed her head against the shoulder of the old, straight-tusked female. A calf leaned and rubbed against the leg of his mother. First one calf lay down, then three more subsided to the ground and lay flat on their sides. The females' heads hung down and their trunks became limp and stretched out until the tips touched the ground. Two of the females rested their trunks on their tusks. One simply draped her trunk over her left tusk. The upcurved female neatly curled her trunk like a snake and rested it on both her tusks. A half-grown calf placed his trunk on the back of a sleeping calf. All became quiet and breathing deepened.

The elephants slept for about 40 minutes, the calves soundly, but the adults much more lightly, occasionally opening their eyes, gently flapping their ears, or swishing a trunk or tail at an annoying fly. A young adult female was the first to show signs of stirring. She stepped forward a few feet and started dusting. Then the calves stood up and synchronously most of the members of the group defecated and urinated. Still they stood there as if waiting. Then the ancient female made a very long, soft rumbling sound, raised and flapped her ears against her neck and shoulders, letting her ears slide down with a rasping sound, and set off. This was the signal they had been waiting for and all the others followed after her.

They traveled north, forming a column two or three abreast. Once again they seemed to have a purpose in their movement and direction. Some of them raised their trunks in the air, sniffing the wind. They headed toward a channel of the swamp where the water continued to flow above ground. Feeding near the channel were two more groups of elephants. The original group moved steadily in their direction. When they arrived at the first of the two stationary groups there was a discreet reaching of trunks in each other's direction by some of the members, but the upcurved female and the old female ignored these elephants and walked on past toward the second group. When they were about 50 yards from this group, the up-curved female rumbled — a different, higher-pitched, and louder rumble than the signal the old female gave after they woke. This sound produced an instant reaction in the new group. The members raised their heads, lifted and spread their ears, and produced loud, throaty rumbles. At the same time the elephants in both groups began to secrete a clear liquid from the temporal glands on the sides of their faces. More answering rumbles came from the original group and then both started striding rapidly toward each other. When they were 20 yards apart they broke into a run and came together in a turmoil of earflapping, rumbling, screaming, trumpeting, clicking of tusks together, entwining of trunks, spinning and backing, and urinating and defecating. Their temporal gland secretions were streaming down their faces and they reached their trunks toward each other's glands. The upcurved female pushed through the milling calves and went straight to a large female with a big tear out of her right ear. They lifted their heads together and clicked tusks while entwining their trunks and rumbling deeply.

The elephants continued to greet one another, with accompanying loud vocalizations, for another four to five minutes. When they calmed down the adults and older juveniles started to feed. The younger calves, still stimulated by the interactions, investigated each other for a while longer. Eventually, they too began to feed again. The two groups had now merged into one and all fed together peacefully. They moved into the deeper part of the channel and fed in this area for another two hours.

Around 4:00 a huge lone bull elephant, carrying his head high and his chin tucked in, appeared from the east. His temporal glands, also located midway between his eye and ear on each side of his head, were streaming with a thick, viscous fluid. The sheath of his penis was a greenish color and continuously dripped urine. He gave off an extremely strong, sharp odor. When he was still well over a hundred yards away the females in the group raised their trunks and sniffed in his direction. They stopped feeding, rumbled, and warily watched his approach. He continued to come, and as he got closer he slowed his pace, lowered his head slightly, and nonchalantly draped his trunk over one tusk. The females visibly relaxed, and when he arrived in the group, they rumbled excitedly and some of the younger females turned and backed in toward him. The bull went to each female in turn, and placed the tip of his trunk on her vulva, which hung down low between her hind legs, facing the ground. If she had urinated he touched the urine with the tip of his trunk. With most of the females he quickly moved on; with a few he smelled the vulva or urine for longer and then placed his trunk in his own mouth and stood very still as he analyzed the odor and taste. After he had tested all of the females, he started to feed, but after about half an hour he left and moved on to the other group in the area, where he also inspected the females. Here too he found nothing to interest him and he moved on, heading out of the swamp to the west.

Toward the late afternoon the new aggregation of females and calves began to orient toward the south and slowly amble in that direction while they fed. They followed the course of the channel for a while but eventually came up onto higher ground and out into the grasslands. They now joined the second group that had been feeding nearby, but they exchanged no greetings. They became a single broad front of elephants moving and feeding through the grass. As the sun was setting they reached a small grove of young Acacia xanthophloea trees. Some of the animals fed on these, carefully removing the thorny branches, and then manipulating them with trunk, tusks, and feet to remove the bark from the larger branches or to bend the thorns in one direction before placing the smaller branches in their mouths.

While the adults were more or less stationary, the calves took the opportunity to play. The young juvenile males from all three groups came together to spar vigorously in pairs. Two faced each other, lifted their heads, and came gently together nose to nose. In this position they felt each other's heads and mouths, with their trunks winding around and through their tusks. They began to push against each other, moving backward and forward until one broke away and backed off. They came together again and pushed until one was shoved onto his backside. They separated, backed up, and this time ran at each other and met with the rich chunking sound of ivory against ivory. Finally one broke away and turned and ran with the other following. The first one whirled around, lifted his head, and spread his ears and his pursuer stopped short, watched the other for a moment, then picked up a stick in his trunk and threw it in the air. The other young male lowered his head and approached and the sparring began again. Several pairs of young males sparred in this way, while the younger calves imitated them, chased one another, climbed on each other, or simply ran around for no apparent reason. They squealed, bellowed, and trumpeted, but the adults paid them no attention whatsoever.

Slowly, one by one, the adults stopped feeding and moved away from the trees. They stood at the edge of the small grove orienting south. Once again they waited until the old female rumbled before setting off. Then they formed a line and headed toward the mountain. The younger calves joined their mothers, but several older calves continued to play. Suddenly finding themselves abandoned, they broke off from sparring to catch up with the others. They ran with a loose, floppy gait, shaking their heads from side to side, letting their ears flap against their necks, and curling their tails up high over their backs, all the while trumpeting with a loud, pulsating, nasal sound. As they neared the group one of the young males whirled and playfully attacked another and they began a new sparring match. Once again they got left behind and once again they ran trumpeting to catch up. The young animals ran and played, and ran and played all across the pan. When they reached thicker vegetation they started to bash through bushes, beating them with their heads and tusks. Even some of the young adults joined in this game and the sounds of their trumpets and screams rent the otherwise quiet evening.

Suddenly, all together, as if by signal, the elephants were quiet and still. They cautiously lifted their trunks, smelled the air, and then took off at a very fast run, in tight formation, with the calves close to their mothers and the larger adults at the front and rear. They ran fast and silently with no trumpets or screams. Nearly a half a mile away, silhouetted against the last light in the western sky, three Maasai warriors moved across the plain with their characteristic ground-eating, loping gait. Over their shoulders they carried six-foot-long spears.

The elephants ran for three quarters of a mile before slowing to a walk. They stopped, still bunched together, turned, and faced in the direction from which they had come, smelling the wind. One or two gave a sharp toss of the head, which made their ears crack like canvas sails. Several of them extended trunks toward each other, and most of the mothers reached for their babies and felt them with their trunks. After a while they relaxed.

They were back in the area of lava and Balanites trees that the original group had passed through in the morning. Soon the aggregation broke down into subgroups and spread out to feed, looking for grass and small shrubs and herbs growing among the rocks. After a while the upcurved female and the ancient female and their calves and associates were on their own once again. Even they were split up into subunits as they continued to feed and move slowly toward the mountain. Every ten minutes or so one of the adult females rumbled a low contact call and listened for an answer from the other group members keeping in touch. By midnight they had covered only a few miles. One by one they stopped feeding and reformed their group, gathering around the two big females. First the young calves, then the older ones, and finally the adult females all lay down and went to sleep. In the moonlight they looked like huge gray boulders, but their deep, peaceful snoring belied the image.

Around 4:00 A.M. they began to stir and struggle up onto their feet. They urinated, defecated, rubbed their eyes, and scratched themselves with their trunk tips or picked up a stick and used it to scratch their bellies or between their front legs where the huge elephant ticks lodged. One female found a convenient tree stump and rubbed herself against it in an ungainly posture. There seemed to be no hurry to go anywhere, but eventually the upcurved female walked off and started to feed and others followed. Their general movement was to the northwest, away from the mountain again.

The elephants fed until dawn and then started striding out more deliberately until, like the morning before, they formed a single file and walked steadily along a well-worn path heading toward the swamp.

I first met the big upcurved female and the ancient female on September 9, 1973. I found them in one of the woodland areas of Amboseli called Ol Tukai Orok, which means "place of the dark palms" in Maa, the language of the local Maasai people. I was in Amboseli for a few days trying to photograph as many elephants as possible to build up a recognition file of the population. I had not seen these animals before and was pleased to find them in a fairly open area where they were feeding and moving slowly. That meant I could take pictures. I was also pleased that they appeared to be very tolerant of my vehicle.

First I counted the group several times and got 11, then 12, then 13 three times in a row. It is more difficult to count elephants than one would imagine. They are large animals and so one assumes that one would be unlikely to miss any, but it is because they are so large that it is easy to miss the ones that are hidden behind the bulk of the nearer ones. After three counts of 13 in different combinations I was satisfied that there were "13 exact" as I wrote in my field notes.


Excerpted from Elephant Memories by Cynthia Moss. Copyright © 2000 Cynthia Moss. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

I. An Amboseli Day 1973-1975
II. Drought 1976
III. Migration 1977
IV. Mating 1978
V. Social Relationships 1979
VI. Births and Babies 1980
VII. Elephants and People 1981
VIII. Flexibility 1982
IX. Population Dynamics 1983
X. Life Cycle and Death 1984
XI. Future Generations and Beyond 1985-1986
Epilogue December 26, 1986
Afterword November 1999
Amboseli Elephant Research Project Publications

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 3, 2015

    Elephant Memories takes you into the world of the elephant resea

    Elephant Memories takes you into the world of the elephant researcher Cynthia Moss and the Elephants of Amboseli National Reserve. From a harrowing close encounter with an irate bull elephant, accounts of birth and death, the effects of drought and a bizarre &quot;disease&quot; afflicting elephants that leads to a significant discovery by colleague Joyce Poole, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read for anyone interested in elephants or wildlife in general.

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    Posted April 4, 2015

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