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60-Second Science

Immigrant Elephants Stick Together

When elephants are transported to new habitats, the immigrants tend to stick together, only slowly assimilating into the existing elephant population. Karen Hopkin reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

It’s a familiar story. When immigrants arrive in a new place, they tend to stick together, forming segregated enclaves that feel like a home away from home. Then, over time, they become assimilated, and integrate into the local community. It was true of the German and Irish immigrants who came to the U.S. in the 1800s. And it’s also true of elephants when they find themselves in unfamiliar territory.

In managing wild elephant populations, rangers will often transport the animals from one place to another, removing them from a familiar habitat and placing them in one that’s new. So scientists in California got to wondering how elephants, which are highly social creatures, handle making themselves at home when they get to a new neighborhood.

It turns out they form enclaves that are the elephant equivalent of a ghetto, where the new pachyderms in the park associate with one another and with other immigrant elephants. Then, once the transplants have been around for a year, they get friendly with the locals, findings that were published by the Royal Society on December 10th. The cautious approach seems to be a good one: not knowing whether the natives are friendly, it’s probably best not to step on any toes. Especially if you’re an elephant.

—Karen Hopkin 

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