Musth is a state that male elephants experience. A male elephant in musth is driven by a surge in testosterone levels. It is absolutely natural and part of the male adult’s cycle of life. Although there are sexually related manifestations it is unclear that this is directly related to a pre-mating preparedness. There are some very pronounced characteristics that signal when the animal is in this condition, both physical and psychological.
What exactly is musth and when does it happen? How long does it last and why does it happen at all? I’ve done some really good study on the subject and want to share some amazing insights with you about this.
I was surprised when I discovered that musth doesn’t only occur in males but there have been cases – although very rare – of females experiencing very similar states.
I am totally passionate about wildlife and nature. I am able to watch videos, read books and articles, and research for hours on end. If you share this same fascination with animals and other creatures then read on and I hope to share some incredible things about what musth is and how this affects the male elephant.
What Is Musth? It Isn’t A Disease
The word “musth” is Persian in origin. It is an Urdu word describing the rutting behaviour of Asian elephants. It has been translated in Northern Indian languages to mean “condition of poisoning”. This isn’t actual poisoning but rather a description of the symptoms manifested and the behaviour that occurs during these periods.
The musth is a season or period that male elephants experience. It isn’t a condition as much as it is a time when the elephant goes through physical as well as mental changes.
It is characterized by behaviour that is highly aggressive and the animal during this time is known to be very dangerous and a threat to other elephants in the herd as well as humans who come into contact with it. I’ll be discussing the specific characteristics that are clear indications that the elephant is in musth.
The Temporal Gland – Called Musth Gland
The temporal gland is situated between the eye and the ear on either side of the face. The normal size of the gland can be as big as a man’s fist but this can actually double in size when active and the swelling is very noticeable.
When the gland is inactive the duct appears to only be a hole. It is only when activity begins that traces of fluid become evident.
The gland is thought to be a modification of an aprocrine sweat gland.
When Does This Happen?
It is normally the case that bulls don’t go into musth before the age of 25. The musth periods during the ages of 25-35 lengthen from a few days per year up to 45 days to 110 days every year. The male can go through these periods for anything between 4-7 months of the year.
It is only at the age of about 50 that the musth seasons are shortened and happen less frequently.
The Stages Of Musth Defined
There are five stages of musth:
- Pre-musth. In pre-musth, only volatile compounds are given out from the temporal gland and may not be noticeable. During this stage of musth there is a swelling of the temporal gland. Aside from the testosterone, the other compounds are numerous ketones and proteins.Another significant compound is frontalin which is a pheromone that was first described in insects. There may not be any discharge initially but this will be followed by the beginning of strong secretions to follow.The blood vessels become engorged which supply the gland as well as a swelling of the perineum. The bull will repeatedly massage the temporal area with the tip of its trunk. There is such a build up of in the gland and all the animal wants to do is stimulate it so that it will soon be released.During this time it may not be visible that a flow is about to ensue but there is a clear indication that musth is brewing and is marked by the aggressive behaviour by the spreading out of the ears and a piercing gaze.
- Early musth. It is during this stage that we observe the visible secretions of all these compounds that are building up. These first two stages are generally for a three-week period.
- Mid-musth or Violent Musth. This is the time when the very pronounced discharge from the temporal gland which leaves black staining of the cheeks down to the corners of the mouth. The discharge may be watery and is more intense during the morning hours.
The secretion, which is known as temporin is oily and has a very pungent smell. There is also frequent urination with a chalky white discharge from the extended penis. Although there are usually no erections during masth, the penis is enlarged. It has also been observed that males during this phase attempt to masturbate.
This high musth lasts for about one month.
- Semi-stupor. The penis during this time does not come out of the sheath and the foreskin is a greenish-white. There is a continuous flow of urine that dribbles down the legs. Although the bull may respond to commands in a trance-like way, extreme caution needs to be taken as the behaviour is unpredictable and he may become aggressive very suddenly.
- Post-musth. The elephant goes into a state of relative calm. The temporal gland withdraws back to its original size, the secretion is normalized and eventually ceases, and urination is back to normal. It can take about one month for the bull to transition back to its usual self.
What Happens To The Elephant? Some Mental Changes
In addition to the physical manifestations, there are a few character changes that can occur which are worth mentioning.
- Signs of autistic behaviour. They become very anti-social and will even harass and behave aggressively towards others in the herd.
- What is coupled to the swelling of the temporal gland is the aggravating discomfort that presses on the elephant’s eyes. They will usually cope with this by digging into the soil with their tusks as a release. It has been observed that the male will attempt to increase the flow be pressing his tusks against hard surfaces. This is also a way that the mark their scent.
- When disturbed are annoyed, there will be erratic and aggressive outbursts.
- In the case of domesticated elephants, when they would normally respond to their keepers, they hardly react at all. This is significant during the semi-stupor phase.
Is Musth Related To Mating?
It has been speculation that there is a link between musth and “rut” but it is unlikely. Male elephants are perfectly capable of coupling with a receptive female even without coming into musth. There are some bulls however that are only able to mate once they come into musth.
In the wild, a male in musth will be with the herd, considering his pick of the females and will quite happily mount a female that is in oestrus. The other males in the herd will stay clear of him as they known the potential danger of interfering.
During musth the male can produce between 40-60 times more testosterone than he normally does. This would naturally be an ideal time for it to sire a young calf but fathering is not limited to musth seasons.
Elephants are not often associated with aggression or danger and it usually comes as quite a surprise when one does witness or hear of elephant attacks. Musth however affects males in some very powerful ways and it is not a good idea to be unaware of the clear signs that accompany these occurrences.
Tragically there are reported cases of people who have not heeded the warnings and come a little too close. If you ever have the opportunity to travel to a reserve or game park that is home to these magnificent creatures, it is advisable that you known that these are wild animals despite the fact that they display very human attributes in their behaviour.
Musth is a phenomenon that is more commonly seen in Asian elephant bulls, but has been evident in the African variety as well.
I love to engage with others about interesting wildlife facts so if you have any questions or comments about this article I would be very happy to hear from you.