Finding a Mate
In the wild, male and female elephants live separately. Females live in groups together and help each other raise their young. When a male reaches sexual maturity at approximately age 14, he leaves the females and lives either alone or with other groups of males. Females and males come back together for mating.
When a female elephant goes into oestrus, she is ready to mate. Female elephants can go into oestrus four times a year once they reach sexual maturity at about the age of 12, unless they are pregnant or nursing a calf. When a female elephant is in oestrus, she releases pheromones that attract male elephants to her. She also sounds loud mating calls to call to the males and let them know that she is ready to mate. Sexually mature male elephants respond to the females' calls and the scent of her pheromones to try to mate with her.
Male elephants go into musth--a period of high testosterone levels--for a couple of months on a yearly basis. Male elephants in musth can be aggressive and are dominant over male elephants that are not in musth. When male elephants are in musth, they excrete urine that contains pheromones to let the female elephants know that they are in musth. Elephants in musth sound loud mating calls and actively seek out a female in oestrus.
Female elephants will almost always pick a male in musth over a male that is not in musth to mate with, possibly because they are the dominant elephant at the time and exhibit stronger genes. When in musth, male elephants will guard females who are in oestrus from other males, and the females seem to actively seek this protection. Male elephants that are not in musth will not confront an elephant that is in musth.
Deciding to Mate
When a male elephant finds a female elephant that is in oestrus, he touches the female's vagina with his trunk to get a sample of her urine and vaginal secretions to evaluate if she is indeed in oestrus, a process called the flehmen response. If the female elephant is in oestrus and accepting of the male, she will allow him to mount. With young females, other elephants often stay nearby to ensure safety.
When mating, the male elephant stands up on his hind legs and mounts the female elephant from behind. He holds on to her with his front legs and mates with her. The physical mating takes a few minutes. After mating, the two elephants often spend time together touching each other with their trunks and even entwining each other's trunks in an embrace. The two elephants may spend as much as two weeks together before the male leaves to live apart from the females again. A male that is still in musth may go find another female to mate with.
If the female elephant becomes pregnant, she will stay pregnant for 22 months. When the time comes, she gives birth to her baby with the other females in the group standing in a circle around her. The pregnant mother bends her back legs and squats down during the birthing process. The birth usually lasts two hours. After the baby elephant is born, the mother and all of the other females in her group will raise the baby together without the help of the father.
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