Baby Elephants Born to Stressed Mothers Age Faster in Captivity and the Wild

First Posted: Sep 15, 2015 08:57 AM EDT

Can a mother's stress impact her child? That's the case for elephants. Scientists have found that elephants born into stressful situations have fewer offspring and age faster.

"Poor early life conditions have been linked to many disease outcomes in humans, but is unknown whether stress in early life also speeds up aging rates in long-lived species," said Hannah Mumby, one of the researchers, in a news release. "We found that the decline in reproduction with age is much steeper in the elephants born at the poorer time of year. Even though they reproduce slightly more when they're young, this still doesn't compensate for the steep decline and they end up with fewer offspring."

In this latest study, the researchers examined the record of the lives and deaths of more than 10,000 elephants from Myanmar spanning three generations and almost a century. The elephants were semi-captive animals working in the timber industry by pushing and dragging laws.

The scientists used measured of a hormone associated with stress, called glucocorticoid metabolites, in order to determine which months represented stressful conditions for the elephants. They found that the months from June to August are the most challenging for the animals. In fact, during these months the number of calves born is low and their survival prospects are poor.

"Fertility and reproductive rate decline with age for all of us, but for some faster than others-and this variation was how we measured differences in aging," said Virpi Lummaa, senior author of the new study.

The findings reveal that maternal stress can greatly impact offspring. This could have important implications for Asian elephant populations born in zoos, where they may experience stressful conditions associated with captivity.

The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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