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The Four Types of Elephant Personality

Echo and her family

A new study of a herd of elephants in Africa has begun the process of classifying their personalities.

There are lots of different ways that psychologists use to observe human personalities. One of the most common is the Five Factor Model, which looks at where people place themselves on five different scales or “dimensions”:

Openness (from curious to cautious),
Conscientiousness (from efficient to easy-going)
Extraversion (from outgoing to solitary ),
Agreeableness (from friendly to cold)
and Neuroticism (from sensitive to secure and confident).

In the case of the elephants, the scientists looked at four dimensions of personality: Leadership, Gentleness, Playfulness and Reliability.

The team used data collected over 38 years of watching the Echo group, named after their matriarch, Echo. The group has been the subject of many studies, articles and TV programs. Echo herself died in 2009. The researchers analyzed the available materials for 26 types of behavior and found four personality traits in particular that tended to come to the fore.

“Each individual in a group has a very different personality type,” said Professor Phyllis Lee, a behavioral psychologist at University of Stirling and chair of the scientific advisory committee for the Amboseli Trust for Elephants. “These personalities have a key role in how successful the family is and how they cope with threats and adversity like starvation or drought.”

Among elephants, leadership is established not by dominance, as in many other kinds of animals, including humans, but by the respect gained in showing intelligence and solving problems.

The strongest personality that emerged was that of leadership. But among elephants, leadership is established not by dominance, as in many other kinds of animals, including humans, but by the respect gained in showing intelligence and solving problems.

“This is unusual in animals,” Professor Lee said. “Normally dominance is the main element in leadership in dogs, macaques, chimpanzees and many more. What we find in elephants is that it’s more about their ability to get agreement. Leadership is not equal to power or assertion in elephants, but illustrates the respect accorded to individuals as a function of their problem-solving ability and their social permissiveness.”

Echo, the matriarch, showed a very high degree of leadership, and her daughter Enid, and Ella, the second oldest female, also emerged as leaders.

The younger elephants emerged most strongly when the scientists studied the herd for Playfulness, although 40-year-old Eudora was perhaps the most playful of all.

On the Gentleness dimension, two of the elephants, Eleanor and Eliot, tended to caress each other and the others the most.

And Echo stood out once again, along with her youngest daughter, Ebony, when it came to Reliability and consistent decision-making.

This is just the beginning of what will be a much longer study, including, next, male elephants. Once they’re adults, the males don’t tend to remain permanently with the herd. “We don’t know much about the personality types in males yet,” Professor Lee said. “But they develop strong friendships and older males tend to mentor younger ones, who follow them and learn from them.”

The full study is at the Journal of Comparative Psychology. The following is from the abstract:

Animal personalities have been demonstrated for almost 200 species, with stable dimensions of responses (aggressive to fearful; shy to bold) across contexts and with a heritable basis to these traits.

As a long-lived and highly social species, elephants (Loxodonta africana) were expected to demonstrate complex dimensions to individual characteristics or personalities, which would be obvious to human observers and validated by behavioral observations. Eleven adult females were rated by four observers and found to have individually variable traits on four dimensions described by principal-components analysis.

The first component was associated with effective and confident family leadership. Component 2 was age-related, and defined by playfulness, exploration and high levels of activity, suggesting both an experience and an age-related element to its structure. Component 3 represented gentleness and at its other extreme, aggression, and Component 4 was related to constancy (predictability and popularity), with both of these latter components reflecting social integration.

Leadership among elephant females represents the successful negotiation among individual interests, and our components were related to a capacity to affect the behavior of others in the absence of aggressive dominance. The family matriarch, Echo, was high on elements associated with leadership. The importance of the matriarch in this family’s success suggests that elements of personality may underlie interfamilial variation in long-term survival and reproduction.