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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

The dynamics of social networks among female Asian elephants

Shermin de Silva125*, Ashoka DG Ranjeewa23 and Sergey Kryazhimskiy4*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA

2 Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project, 1/657 Thanamalwila Road, Uda Walawe, Sri Lanka

3 Faculty of Natural Sciences, Open University of Sri Lanka, Nawala Road, Nugegoda, Sri Lanka

4 Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA

5 Elephant, Forest and Environment Conservation Trust, 215 A 3/7 Park Road, Colombo 5, Sri Lanka

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BMC Ecology 2011, 11:17  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-11-17

Published: 27 July 2011



Patterns in the association of individuals can shed light on the underlying conditions and processes that shape societies. Here we characterize patterns of association in a population of wild Asian Elephants at Uda Walawe National Park in Sri Lanka. We observed 286 individually-identified adult female elephants over 20 months and examined their social dynamics at three levels of organization: pairs of individuals (dyads), small sets of direct companions (ego-networks), and the population level (complete networks).


Corroborating previous studies of this and other Asian elephant populations, we find that the sizes of elephant groups observed in the field on any particular day are typically small and that rates of association are low. In contrast to earlier studies, our longitudinal observations reveal that individuals form larger social units that can be remarkably stable across years while associations among such units change across seasons. Association rates tend to peak in dry seasons as opposed to wet seasons, with some cyclicity at the level of dyads. In addition, we find that individuals vary substantially in their fidelity to companions. At the ego-network level, we find that despite these fluctuations, individuals associate with a pool of long-term companions. At the population level, social networks do not exhibit any clear seasonal structure or hierarchical stratification.


This detailed longitudinal study reveals different social dynamics at different levels of organization. Taken together, these results demonstrate that low association rates, seemingly small group sizes, and fission-fusion grouping behavior mask hidden stability in the extensive and fluid social affiliations in this population of Asian elephants.

Elephas maximus; social organization; fission-fusion