Matriarchs of Mushara

The activity for the night watch team hasn’t slowed as the heavy wind in the past few days has kept the elephants at bay until sunset. Two nights ago, the parade of families started with the Princesses arriving from the south at dusk, followed by the Pharaohs from the west, the Athletes (with Smokey escorting) from the east, and finally Big Momma from the northwest.

As for ranking, the Pharaohs displaced the remaining Princesses that hadn’t quite finished their drink. But when the Athletes arrived from the east, the Pharaohs succeeded in holding their position at the source of the spring, forcing Mia and her family to drink from the pan. Cleopatra (aka Bent Ear) kept returning to the source, standing her ground and making sure that Mia remained in the pan.

Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

This dynamic was similar on the previous night when Left Tusker of the Warriors reinforced her position at the source of the spring by marching back and forth, keeping a keen eye on Left Hook of the Boxers who drank from the pan until the Warriors had had their fill and departed. Only then did they approach the fresh water.

Matriarch of Boxers Left Hook waits for Warriors to leave. Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

When Big Momma arrived on the heels of the Pharaohs’ departure last night, they displaced the remaining Athletes from the waterhole. And judging from an interaction on a previous late afternoon, had Big Momma arrived with the Pharaohs still present, she would have successfully dispensed with them as well. But the past few visits seemed to have been timed with Big Momma’s arrival triggering the Pharaohs’ departure so we have only documented one interaction where they were both present at the same time.

Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

Big Momma and Cleopatra are particularly vigilant matriarchs, their patrolling of the spring being a testament to their dedication to their family’s fitness, making sure that their families have access to the purest drinking water. And it’s no wonder Cleopatra would want to avoid Big Momma as no one in the elephant world makes a threatening fist with their trunk quite like her. Big Momma balls up the end of her trunk and drags it on the ground, tossing it toward an unfortunate individual within a subordinate family, leaving them little choice but to relinquish their position and drink from the brackish pan.

Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.

This season is supported by Tembo PreserveThe Elephant SanctuaryStanford Universityand Utopia Scientific volunteers.

Caitlin O’Connell, Ph.D., is a faculty member at Stanford University School of Medicine, and a world-renowned expert on elephants.  Her twenty years of research has resulted in numerous scientific publications and  popular books, including the internationally acclaimed The Elephant’s Secret Sense. The Elephant Scientist won five awards, including both the Sibert and Horn Book Honors. An Elephant’s Life and A Baby Elephant In The Wild depict the complex social lives of elephants through images. Her more recent books included Elephant Don (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and Ivory Ghosts (Penguin Random House ebook imprint Alibi, 2015), and the sequel, White Gold. Ivory Ghosts will come out as a graphic novel with Kymera Press. ELEPHANT KING, a documentary about her research, won the CINE Best Environment & Nature Award.

Caitlin’s earlier research into seismic transmission and detection of elephant vocalizations was been funded in part by the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration.

For more information, visit her nonprofit organization Utopia Scientific website ( and her author site at She and her husband, Tim Rodwell, write the tumblr blog Also follow her on twitter: Mushara

Author photo credit: Max Salomon

Photograph courtesy of Caitlin O’Connell and Timothy Rodwell.