As you probably already know. elephant culture is a very different animal for male “bulls” and female “cows”. Bull elephants are most often solitary once they reach adulthood, whereas females live in collective herds with their young.
Some of this, to be sure, is a testament to the size of the average bull elephant making them unappetizing targets for non-human predators, but it also has a lot of other implications.
Professional safari guide and tracker Rory Young wrote up some interesting comments on how it works in practice.
[Bull elephants] get together with their buddies and do the elephant equivalent of arm-wrestling. They figure out dominance by fighting. This fighting can range from mild, playful pushing to raging battles to the death.
There is much language and ritual involved with bulls approaching one another and indicating their intention. This can be a casual approach with the trunk hung over one tusk to indicate a “relaxed” disposition or a head-held-high, roaring attack.
The laid-back approach will usually be a casual session to figure out who is stronger, while the death match will usually involve two bulls in musth.
What is “musth” anyways?
In the same way that females of many mammal species go into heat (which, by the way, female elephants also do), elephant males also have an equivalent.
An elephant bull in musth will be pumping as much as 200 times as much testosterone as would normally be the case, making them unpredictable, bold, and willing to fight to the death to get what they want – meaning mating.
There’s some speculation that one of the evolutionary advantages of musth for elephants is it allows younger, less dominant bulls to have a chance at mating which, given that elephants keep growing as they age, would otherwise be a genuine question.
When a female goes into season, every male for miles around will try to mate with her. The whole herd will often try to chase off large numbers of excited males.
When a bull in musth turns up, however, everything changes. The other bulls back off, and the female in season will attach herself to him so as to be left alone by all the others. The rest of the herd understandably encourages this.
Past childhood, thus, elephant sexual segregation is the rule aside from the obvious mating exception, and one other, less well-known exception – bull elephants will also, on occasion, visit mom.
Via Slate for more photos and the full answer.