But a peculiar group of teenage males in South Africa paints quite a different picture. As these elephants aged out of adolescence, they began successfully breeding by age 18, a full decade before what is ordinary for their species. For typical 25-30 year olds, musth lasts for several days, while for forty-year-olds it may last as long as four months. But the period of musth in these teenage males lasted as long as five months, and it wasn't only their sexual behaviours that puzzled researchers. They also went on killing sprees, targeting white rhinoceroses in particular.
What made these male elephants so dangerously aggressive and so unusually sexually active? When the young were growing up in South Africa's Kruger National Park in the 1980s, the mature males and females of their social groups were the victims of culling programmes. The juvenile males, none of them older than ten years, were relocated to Pilanesberg National Park some six hundred kilometres away, where they matured in the absence of any adults. The orphan males never spent their awkward teenage years being mentored by older, more experienced males. An assessment of this and other "stressed communities" which had all been subject to elephant culling showed that male-male aggression accounted for almost ninety out of every hundred male deaths, compared with only 6% in unstressed communities.
Rob Slotow, of the University of Natal in South Africa, explains than when given a chance to grow up surrounded by mature adult males, the younger, rebellious teenagers are kept in line by the elder pachyderms. The adolescents "lose the physical signs of musth minutes or hours after an aggressive interaction with a higher-ranking musth male… larger, older males may delay the onset of musth in younger males." The orphans of Pilanesberg did not have this safety net.
Slotow and colleagues tested this by introducing six older males into the Pilanesberg community, and what they found was remarkable. The amount of time spent in musth was reduced for all the Pilanesberg orphans who suddenly found themselves subordinate to the newly introduced males. The wanton slaughter of white rhinoceroses was eliminated entirely. It seems as if elephant society evolved to account for the bad decisions associated with adolescence, by having older males suppress the hypersexuality and hyperaggressiveness of younger males.
Throughout the animal kingdom, adolescence is a tightrope act. As they gradually lose the care and protection they receive from their parents, young animals of any species must strike a delicate balance between risk and safety. If they play it too safe, they'll suffer a lack of understanding about the dangers of the worlds in which they live. Too risky, and they might wind up served as a tasty snack for a hungry shark or cheetah or killed at the hands of their friends.
Most efforts to establish the root of risky decisions made by human teenagers focus on the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for mental processes like long-term planning and judgement. But risky decisions are a recurring feature of adolescence for species after species, including many with much smaller prefrontal cortices to begin with, compared to humans or elephants. Perhaps concerned human parents can rest a bit easier knowing that their worries echo throughout the animal kingdom. If sea otter parents could, you can be sure they too would punish their offspring for breaking curfew and staying out too late in the triangle of death. Without even so much as a phone call.