Musth is a Hindi word meaning “intoxicated” and is a periodic condition affecting adult male elephants, where they have elevated Testosterone levels (as much as sixty times the normal amount). This makes their behaviour highly aggressive and sexually active. This period lasts for about a month, and is characterised by swollen temporal glands which discharge a thick, strong smelling, fluid called temporin. Elephants in this condition will also continuously dribble urine.
The temporin runs down into the elephant’s mouth, and the swollen glands press on the eyes of the elephant causing great pain. These could be contributary factors to the aggression levels, indeed they will often dig their tusks into the ground to try and stop the discomfort.
Behavioral changes during musth
Males going through musth also show distinct behaviour patterns. They will wave their ears to spread the temporin scent, make low frequency rumbles to get the attention of females in heat, and will walk with their head and ears held high in a show of aggression towards other males, or against anything which is in their path. Females in herds will allow males in musth to get to receptive females, while blocking other males who are not.
Musth and humans
In domesticated elephants this, of course, makes things extremely dangerous for any humans nearby and complicates attempts to breed elephants in zoos. Mahouts (elephant handlers) in India will often chain an elephant in musth to a tree, and starve it of food and water, which results in the musth passing after just a few days. Drugs such as the sedative Xylazine are also used to shorten the condition. The heightened aggression levels are also prime causes of cases of elephants attacking people, or running rampant through villages.
Photo credit: Flickr user muzina_shanghai