African bush elephants (Loxodonta africana) - South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
We mammals have a number of standout characteristics that set us apart from the rest of life on planet Earth and allow us to thrive in just about any habitat. These include a unique reproductive and nursing strategy, warm-bloodedness (although birds also have this trait), hair-covered bodies and large, highly developed brains. However, the characteristic that has driven our success more than any other is our ability to cooperate. It’s true that birds form flocks that help them to fly more efficiently (like cyclists in a peloton) and that ants and termites form vast, complex colonies that perform incredible feats of engineering. There are even examples of different species working together to achieve specific goals (think the octopus and grouper hunting together in Blue Planet II).
Yet mammalian cooperation is different. We are able to create shared cultures, pass knowledge from one generation to the next and live in tight-knit family groups that are greater than the sum of their parts. The elephants in this image are a perfect example of this. Every herd or family group is headed by a matriarch who is responsible for guiding her family to food and water, protecting them from danger and general decision-making. She learned these skills from her mother and will pass them on to her heir. Without this family structure, elephants would not exist in the form we know them today. Feeding and hydrating a body that size is no mean feat, especially in drought conditions. Herds that lose their leader during tough times and don’t have a ready-made replacement to take over often end up decimated.
“Family Crossing” is a poignant reminder of how important the bonds that bind us truly are. We all need some guidance to navigate a vast and unforgiving universe, just as the elephants in this image must trust their elder to lead them safely to the other side. Of course, it’s equally as important that we one day provide this guidance to future generations as well.
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