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It's in these wild bachelor herds that teenage bulls first go through something known as "moda musth." It's like musth lite; they secrete fluid from their glands but the smell is sweet, sort of like honey. It lasts only for a day or two, and older bulls — those in real musth — don't see the teenage bulls as a threat, because they know the ladies aren't interested. "They're kind of like humans," Schulte says of female elephants. "College girls aren't as likely to date eighth-grade boys."
Real musth starts when males are in their twenties. But scientists don't know why it occurs. It's not needed for breeding, as males can impregnate females at any time. And there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason behind its unpredictable timing. Different bulls go into musth at different times of the year for different lengths of time. But scientists do know this: When a bull is in musth, he breaks off from the bachelor group and goes off by himself to look for females. When he's successfully mated or when his musth wears off — another unexplained phenomenon — he'll typically rejoin the group, though bulls tend to become more and more solitary as they get older.
Even if a bull manages to do the deed, there's no guarantee he'll become a father. It's not easy to get female elephants pregnant. One reason is that they have a fourteen- to sixteen-week menstrual cycle, meaning they can only conceive once every four months. Another is that pregnancy lasts 22 months, and when a mother gives birth to her 250-pound baby, she nurses it for two to four years. Only then is she ready for another go.
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Age is also a barrier. Researchers recently discovered that a female's chances of getting pregnant drop off significantly if she hasn't had her first baby by the time she's in her early twenties. On average, elephants live to be about sixty years old.
Males, on the other hand, seem to become more virile over time. One theory is that musth is tied to an animal's weight — it takes a lot of energy to get that worked up — and since Asian elephants continue to grow until they die, the biggest males have the biggest, baddest musths. Though there's some debate about whether females prefer males in musth, there's no question that a musth male temporarily rises to the top of the boys'-club hierarchy, increasing his chances that the other bulls will step back and let him have first crack at the cows.
And pity the fool that gets in his way.
Researchers think the Hansel-and-Gretel-like trail of urine left behind by a musth male wherever he goes acts as a signal to other non-musth males to steer clear. It's only when a musth male comes across another musth male — especially one the same size and strength as him — that there could be trouble.
"When two musth males interact — and interact aggressively — in the wild, they're fighting to the death," says Joyce Poole, who has studied wild elephants in Africa and Asia for more than thirty years and is now the director of research and conservation for the nonprofit ElephantVoices. She's seen fights last for eight hours at a time, with the males clashing and backing off, clashing and backing off. Sometimes an elephant will mortally wound another with his tusks. Other times, one will forfeit and run away.
"If they don't have the space to do that, one elephant could pin another against a fence or something and kill him," Poole says.
And experts agree that in a group of eight male elephants, the chances that more than one will be in musth at any given time are pretty good. "In a zoo setting, if you had multiple males in musth, it's not going to be a fun day at work," says Daryl Hoffman, curator of large animals at the Houston Zoo and the executive director of the Elephant Managers Association.
Bulls in musth are kept separately at the few U.S. zoos that have more than one. Which, for those elephants, is no different than usual.
The behemoth Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida owns nine bulls, one of the largest collections in the U.S. Five of them are considered "breeding bulls," says Dennis Schmitt, the center's chair of veterinary services and director of research. Though they can see each other through fences and communicate by sound and smell, they don't have any physical contact.
It's the same at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, where 47-year-old Packy, 38-year-old Tusko and 26-year-old Rama are all sometimes in musth at the same time, says zoo deputy director Mike Keele. "We keep them apart because we're afraid they'll fight," he says. "It's okay to tussle and establish dominance, but we'd be hard-pressed to stop bulls who weigh 12,000 pounds and 10,000 pounds from injuring each other."
But there's a difference between what those facilities do and what Denver plans to do. The animals in Florida, Portland and a handful of other zoos weren't raised together. It's common for elephants to move from zoo to zoo throughout their lifetimes, and many don't end up in a facility with another male until they're adults, already set in their ways. The Denver Zoo is hoping that by acquiring juvenile bulls, they'll be able to socialize them young so that they're used to one another. Then, by the time they're fully grown, they will have worked out a social hierarchy that will prevent dangerous fighting.