Conservation Physiology – https://doi.org/10.1093/conphys/coac053
Orphans of several species suffer social and physiological consequences such as receiving more aggression from conspecifics and lower survival. One physiological consequence of orphaning, stunted growth, has been identified in both humans and chimpanzees, but has not been assessed in a non-primate species. Here, we tested whether wild African elephant orphans show evidence of stunted growth. We measured individually known female elephants in the Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves of Kenya, with a rangefinder capable of calculating height, to estimate a von Bertalanffy growth curve for female elephants of the study population. We then compared measurements of known orphans and non-orphans of various ages, using a Bayesian analysis to assess variation around the derived growth curve. We found that orphans are shorter for their age than non-orphans. However, results suggest orphans may partially compensate for stunting through later growth, as orphans who had spent a longer time without their mother had heights more similar to non-orphans. More age mates in an individual’s family were associated with taller height, suggesting social support from peers may contribute to increased growth. Conversely, more adult females in an individual’s family were associated with shorter height, suggesting within-group competition for resources with older individuals may reduce juvenile growth. Finally, we found a counterintuitive result that less rainfall in the first 6 years of life was correlated with taller height, potentially reflecting the unavoidable bias of measuring individuals who were fit enough to survive conditions of low rainfall as young calves. Reduced growth of individuals has been shown to reduce survival and reproduction in other species. As such, stunting in wildlife orphans may negatively affect fitness and represents an indirect effect of ivory poaching on African elephants.