Interplay of male traits, male mating strategies and female mate choice in the Asian elephant, Elephas maximus

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Elaborate male traits with no apparent adaptive value may have evolved through female mate discrimination. Tusks are an elaborate male-only trait in the Asian elephant that could potentially influence female mate choice. We examined the effect of male body size, tusk possession and musth status on female mate choice in an Asian elephant population. Large/musth males received positive responses from oestrous females towards courtship significantly more often than did small/non-musth males. Young, tusked non-musth males attempted courtship significantly more often than their tuskless peers, and received more positive responses (though statistically insignificant) than did tuskless males. A positive response did not necessarily translate into mating because of mate-guarding by a dominant male. Female elephants appear to choose mates based primarily on traits such as musth that signal direct fertility benefits through increased sperm received than for traits such as tusks that may signal only indirect fitness benefits.

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Figures
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    Courtship sequence in Asian elephant mating behaviour.

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    Mount duration versus male elephant shoulder height and musth status. D is the duration in seconds that a male elephant stayed mounted on an oestrous female’s back; h is the height at withers in cm and m the musth status of the male elephant. (a) exp(D)=8.44+0.04h. Correlation between observed and predicted values = 0.90, p<0.01; (b) exp(D)=2.22+0.96m, where m=1 when the male is in musth, 0 when not. Correlation between observed and predicted values = 0.91, p<0.01. Symbols indicating P are plotted with some noise to avoid overplotting.

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    Female preference versus male elephant shoulder height and musth status. P is the probability of a male elephant receiving a positive response from an oestrous female during courtship attempts; (a) log(P(1P))=19.08+0.08h, where h is male shoulder height (cm). Correlation between observed and predicted values = 0.70, p<0.01; (b) log(P(1P))=0.10+1.93m, where m=1 when the male is in musth, 0 when not. Correlation between observed and predicted values = 0.75, p<0.01. Symbols indicating P are plotted with some noise to avoid overplotting.

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    P is the probability of a male elephant receiving a positive response from an oestrous female during courtship attempts: log(P(1P))=1.19+1.19t. t=1 when the male has tusks, 0 when tuskless.

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