You may have heard about elephant musth before, and may even know that it relates in some way to bull elephants and mating… But there’s much more to it than that.
In this article, we’re going to explore exactly what musth is, what causes it, and what its impact is on elephants.
What exactly is ‘musth’?
Musth is a biological condition affecting all adult male elephants (also known as bull elephants) that occurs for 2-3 months each year.
During this period bull elephants secrete a significant amount of a hormone-rich substance called temporin from their temporal glands on either side of their foreheads, which impacts their behaviour. Musth causes bull elephants to become sexually hyperactive and attempt to show their dominance over other male elephants.
More specifically, an elephant in musth shows some or all of these signs:
- Frequent urination, with a steady trickle down the back of their legs.
- Standoffs and fights with other bull elephants.
- Digging their tusks into the ground, to deal with the pain from their glands.
- Making a rumbling noise through their mouth, known as ‘musth rumble‘.
- Trying to mate with females – whether they are sexually active or not.
- Rampaging around any local villages.
Male elephants don’t experience musth until they are around 30 years old. For young male elephants, musth happens over the course of a few days or weeks, while musth in older males can last for months (know how long elephants live for?).
There are three stages of musth. For a typical mature elephant schedule is something like:
- Pre-musth: 3 to 4 week
- Peak musth: 4 to 5 week
- Post-musth: 4-5 week
In their natural habitats, mature bull elephants tend to show these three stages properly. In domesticated or zoo environments musth is often very irregular in its appearance and length.
The biology behind musth
Musth is generally associated with the elephant mating season, but it’s a little more complex than that.
Bull elephants enter into musth each winter due to a number of physiological reasons. However, a female elephant’s sexual activity is not linked with seasons, rather she is able to mate whenever her body gets heated. This means that females are often not able to mate whilst a male is in musth, or are able to mate whilst a male is not in musth.
Musth depends on three key biological events. Let’s look at them now:
1. Testosterone surge
When an elephant is about to enter musth, the testosterone levels inside its body rises significantly – up to 60 times its natural level. For some bull elephants, it reaches 140 times higher than normal.
The presence of such a high amount of sexual hormone inside the elephant’s body heats it up from its usual 35.9 °C. It becomes hot and its behavior changes to become aggressive and unpredictable as a result of the hormonal upsurge.
2. Temporin secretion
On each side of the male elephants’ forehead is a gland called the temporal gland. It is from these glands that a bull elephant in musth secretes a thick tar-like chemical called temporin, which leads to an increase in their aggression.
3. Swelling of the temporal glands
During musth, the temporal glands swell in size, and its thought this causes acute pain to the elephant’s eyes. To subdue this intense pain the bull elephant shows aggression towards all other animals near him. In simple words, the swelling of their glands makes a bull elephant mentally frustrated and physically agitated.
Frequently asked questions about musth
What is elephant musth?
Elephant musth is a term referring to a bull elephant’s biological condition. In musth, an elephant starts to behave oddly and shows aggression towards male elephants and other animals. It lasts for up to three months. Other periods are non-musth.
Why do elephants go into musth?
Bull elephants go into musth for several reasons. The reasons are:
- Rising testosterone levels
- Temporin (a kind of hormone) secretion
- Swelling of their temporal glands (between their eyes and ears)
Do female elephants have musth?
Female elephants don’t have musth in their lifecycle. Only males elephants over 30 years old go into musth – usually during winter – for several physiological reasons.
How do you know if an elephant is in musth?
An elephant in musth shows excessive aggression and behaves oddly, often indulging in fights with other bull elephants.
Physically they have secretions from their temporal glands between their eyes and ears, and often have continual trickles of urine down the backs of their legs. Sometimes, they are seen crying or digging the ground to subdue their physical pain.
Origins of the word ‘musth’
Unusual word, isnt’ it?! Musth comes from a Persian word with the same pronunciation – ‘mast’, which literally means drunk or inebriated.
More recent usage of musth refers to a state of enjoyment or pleasure. In the animal world, it is specifically applied to bull elephants, where it refers to the overexcited behaviour they exhibit during their musth period.
And that’s your lot for the elephant musth. Did any of these facts on how bull elephants experience musth surprise you, or any relevant musth facts you think we should add? Please do join in using the comments section below!