Human-modified food distribution affects aggressive behaviour among elephants

News Excerpt:

Elephant herds compete more for food in anthropogenically created grasslands than in forests, even if the former has an abundance of food, according to a new study that highlights how human activities can have ecological effects and impact the social lives of animals.

About Asian Elephants:

  • Asian elephants exhibit female-bonded groups (while males are largely solitary), with the most inclusive social unit being the clan - equivalent to a social group, band, troop, clan or community. 
  • Females within clans show fission-fusion dynamics, in which clan members are usually distributed across multiple groups (or parties), whose group sizes and compositions can change across hours.
  • Asian elephants show many traits which are thought to be associated with low agonistic competition. 
    • First, their primary food is low-quality, dispersed resource (grass and vegetative plant parts) and thus not expected to cause contests. 
    • Their fission-fusion dynamics allow them to split into small groups and mitigate competition flexibly.
    • They are not territorial, and their home ranges may overlap extensively, a trait that was expected to relate to infrequent aggression during between-group encounters.

Key Highlights of the study:

  • Scientists from Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research investigated the influence of food distribution within and between group interactions in female-bonded animals such as elephants.
  • They found that elephant herds compete more in grasslands, which have more food than forests.
  • The findings of their study partly support the predictions of a socio-ecological model, the ecological model of female social relationships (EMFSR), which states that food distribution primarily determines competition (and physical conflict) between and within groups. 
    • Increased conflict is expected over abundant and clumped food resources that groups or individuals can monopolise.
  • The study shows that increasing resource availability can have opposite effects than intended.
    • It has a lot of relevance in the context of rapid anthropogenic changes in natural habitats, such as human interference in the social systems of wild populations.


In this food-rich habitat patch attracting high elephant density, while food distribution does not explain within-group competition, high between-group competition is partly explained by food patchiness (between the forest and grassland), providing mixed support to the EMFSR.

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