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Musth (wikipedia.org)
77 points by Petiver on April 8, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 15 comments

One hobby of mine is trying to imagine what it would be like if elephants developed human-level communication and thus civilization. They are close enough that it seems like a coincidence of evolution that apes got there and elephants didn't: maybe ape brains were selected somewhat differently, or maybe we went through moments of high evolutionary pressure (and survived), where elephants didn't (or like the woolly mammoths, didn't survive).

Imagining how a civilization might develop with musth is interesting: it seems biologically antisocial, like periodic insanity. Would there be pressure to self-regulate? Ostracism during that time? Evolutionary selection against musth?

It feels like there's an analogous suspicion and fear of human men as well, similarly peaking for adolescent humans, like adolescent elephants, who are least able to self-regulate. But the fears would be much stronger in elephants, and so acute since musth is temporary and outwardly visible.

If not ostracism, what social pressure could be applied via punishment? Elephants' scale would require different approaches: for instance, I don't believe any number of elephants could work together to lift another elephant. Elephants would have a degree of physical autonomy that, while not unbounded, would be greater than humans: they can hurt each other, but not subdue except through threat. And if you are crazy on hormones a threat might not be enough!

It kind of reminds me of Pon Farr from Star Trek, a regularly occurring period of increased aggression experienced by male Vulcans every 7 years.

Female Vulcans also experience the pon farr.

You would probably enjoy the Blue Remembered Earth sci-fi trilogy by Alistair Reynolds. It has quite a lot of enhanced-elephant drama.

(I had a time Googling the real title because in my head it was just called "Elephants In Spaaaaaaace").

I wonder if elephants would have been able to be as successful without hands and opposable thumbs and dexterity and stuff. Their trunk is pretty cool but they would have had to follow a rather different evolutionary path to reach civilization that didn't rely on dexterity and fine control for making and using tools etc.

Maybe civilized elephants wouldn't really look like the elephants we know. Although people are fairly similar to apes, it would be hard to look at an ape and imagine them to evolve to humans as we are now, with bipedalism and hairlessness and all that. Maybe elephants would evolve to be smaller and more nimble, or even more dexterous than they are now, if they were to evolve to a civilized form.

I mean, apes look a lot like us. Even a spider monkey is uncomfortably similar in some ways. They have the same body plan, they have hands, etc. We and chimpanzees are not very different in how we look at all. An elephant, to become more dexterous, would either have to do some magic with its trunk or create a new appendage. And the great apes are pretty close to bipedal, elephants would have to restructure their body plan so deeply to be able to stand up that at that point, they'd just be the ancestor species of whatever the later descendant is.

Just imagine Babar going crazy horny and you got yourself a book in sexual education for the new millenia


Strangely enough, there's multiple sci-books with civilized elephants. Footfall, Poseidon's Children, etc..

This is an interesting topic but the (currently linked) English Wikipedia article is quite sensational. It unnecessarily focuses on the aggressive behavior and 30% of it is "References in popular culture". It also left a bunch of open questions so I read the German Wikipedia article and it is quite different - and not only in a superficial way.

English Wikipedia, first content paragraph after lead section:

> "Although it has often been speculated by zoo visitors[2] that musth is linked to rut, it is unlikely there is a biological connection because the female elephant's estrus cycle is not seasonally-linked, whereas musth most often takes place in winter. Furthermore, bulls in musth have often been known to attack female elephants, regardless of whether or not the females are in heat."

German Wikipedia, first content paragraph after lead section (my own translation):

> "Bull elephants reach puberty at about the same age as humans, which can last until the end of the second decade of life. The periodic interval of Musth, its intensity and duration can vary greatly from bull elephant to bull elephant. The duration ranges from a few weeks to several, in extreme cases up to nine months. In most cases, the first Musth lasts significantly shorter in individuals, in older animals the average is two to three months. Some bulls come in Musth once a year, others more frequently. There is no preferred season, so Musth bulls can appear all year round. This is a clear difference to the rutting season of various hoofed animals, which is partly seasonally bound and thus synchronized within a population."

It goes on to describe the phases of Musth. From what I understand from the rest of the German article it is basically the rut of elephants except that it does not occur seasonally. Not everything is known about it but it is well researched. In India it is culturally relevant.

"...reintroducing older males into the elephant population of the area seems to prevent younger males from entering musth, and therefore, stop this aggressive behavior."


Reminds me of orangutans, too [1]:

> Males mature at around 15 years of age, by which time they have fully descended testicles and can reproduce. However, they exhibit arrested development by not developing the distinctive cheek pads, pronounced throat pouches, long fur, or long-calls until they are between 15 and 20 years old. The development of these characteristics depends largely on the absence of a resident male.

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orangutan

In both the elephant and orangutan examples, this dichotomy might be because resident males have already built a social structure that works. The value of another male alpha male might be redundant. If that is the case, the younger male physiologically self regulates because the destruction of a new alpha male isn't worth the marginal benefits. In other species this is not the case and constant fighting to be the alpha male is worth it in aggregate.

I first read about this here: https://medium.com/@flowidealism/evolutionary-mismatch-as-a-...

which makes the case that human adolescents, like elephants, benefit from having older males around. Maybe of interest.

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