Musth In Elephants



Musth, also known as Must – is derived from the Persian language. The word typically means intoxicated, depicting the drunken-like state of male elephants during this period. Musth occurs in adult male bull elephants.

Musth is a biological condition that consists of hormonal changes that induce aggressive behavior inside male bull elephants. Typically, this condition takes place once every year. However, in some cases, it can occur twice as well. 

There’s much more to this natural state of male adult elephants than hormonal surges. Let’s dig deeper into some key aspects of Musth below.

Elephant in musth, flapping its ears while walking on road

What Is Musth?

Musth is a natural biological phenomenon in adult male elephants accompanied by high testosterone and temporin secretion, which causes the elephants to act dominant and aggressive.

Musth occurs in male elephants that surpass the age of 10 to 15.

It has a more significant impact on adult males, as the effects are suppressed in younger males. Musth is not an illness or disease.

Instead, it is a natural phenomenon that all male elephants go through. An adult elephant experiencing Musth means that it’s healthy.

Do All Elephants Experience Musth?

Musth is a biological phenomenon that occurs in all male elephants above 15. However, when it comes to their female counterparts – they do not experience musth.

Female elephants go through a different reproductive phase, unlike Musth, which does not occur at a particular time.

Therefore, it is safe to say that female elephants can mate throughout the year (when they go into heat) while the males mate specifically during Musth.

Elephants in musth

Is Musth Painful?

During Musth, an elephant’s temporal gland swells due to a large amount of temporin secretion. The temporal gland is located on the sides of male elephants’ foreheads.

The swelling of the temporal gland inside male elephants is likely responsible for acute pain, which amplifies these elephants’ aggressive behavior during musth.

However, the main culprit behind the excessive secretion of the tar-like temporin is still a mystery to many. 

When Does Musth Occur in Male Elephants?

Generally, Musth occurs once a year, during winter. However, musth can occur twice a year as well, in some cases. Its duration can last up to 3 months or more. In most cases, the time of occurrence for each year is nearly the same.

The mature elephants show dominance and severe aggression towards other male elephants during this period.

Musth entirely affects male elephants once they’ve passed the age of 25 or 30. Till then, elephants become mature enough to stand their ground against other dominant males.

Due to this, Musth stays longer in mature adult elephants – generally for a few months.

Typically, the appearance of Musth in adult male elephants follows a sequence of events which is as follows:

  • Pre-musth: 3 to 4 weeks
  • Peak musth: 4 to 5 weeks
  • Post-musth: 4 to 5 weeks

Almost all adult males follow this schedule. However, the length, duration, and appearance depend on the environment.

For instance, musth in male elephants living in a zoo or domesticated surroundings will not show the above schedule. Instead, their schedule varies with uncertainty.

When it comes to the younger elephants, they, too, experience Musth.

Typically, when they reach the age of 15. However, the effects are suppressed since they’re not dominant enough to match the strength or aggression of older male elephants.

So, Musth in young male elephants lasts no more than a few weeks or days.

Elephant Behaviour During Musth

When Musth occurs in male adult elephants, they experience an increased testosterone secretion level.

Typically, the level can reach as great as 60 times the average testosterone level. And, in some adult bull elephants, the secretions can go as high as 140 times.

They also release a thick tar-like chemical known as temporin, which starts to leak from either side of their foreheads.

Young Male Elephant During Musth

For a young male elephant experiencing musth – the smell is sweet and resembles a honey-like aroma. This is why ancient poetries and paintings depict bees rushing toward young males. 

The tar-like temporin secretion also includes numerous chemicals found in honey. So, it’s safe to say that the smell is quite pleasant.

Adult Male Elephant During Musth

However, the musth smell in adult male elephants isn’t as pleasant. Instead, it is pretty foul. If you’ve ever supposedly gotten musth on your hands, it doesn’t come off, and the rotten smell stays for days!

Combining both the pain and the hyper-release of sexual hormones, male elephants become irritated during this phase.

They become violent and aggressive towards other male elephants and try to dominate them. Even a shy elephant can become unusually violent during musth.

Generally, when one male elephant starts to experience musth – it’s left alone by its fellow elephants. However, if it does come head-to-head with another elephant also experiencing musth, both would get into a full-blown fight ending with one elephant’s death or submission to the more dominant one.

Also, they start to follow a specific walking pattern to show dominance towards other male elephants. The pattern shows dominance, in which the male elephants’ heads are held up, but their ears are “bulging” out. This definite pattern also has a name – musth swagger. 

Musth tussle between elephants

How to Act Around An Elephant In Musth

If you find yourself in a situation where you’re near a male elephant (going through musth) – leave the area immediately. Elephants are giant, powerful beings, and while they’re in their musth phase, they become severely active and ready to dominate.

Therefore, do not try to go close to the elephants or interact with them because it will always be bad for you.

If you’re in a car, do not go near the creature for photographs, nor try to interact with them. Gently drive your vehicle away from the hyperactive elephant, and wait for it to pass by.

You should show the same caution when an elephant is ready to attack.

Final Thoughts On Musth In Elephants

The period of Musth is a hard one for an adult male elephant, as it includes aggressive behavior, dominance, and the added pain of the swollen temporal gland, which is located beneath an elephant’s eyes. 

Also, musth significantly increases the testosterone level inside male elephants, leading to a hypersexual condition.

Elephants in musth battling


Do Female Elephants Go Into Musth?

Female elephants don’t experience musth. Unlike males, they experience a separate reproductive phase that makes them sexually active. However, male elephants go into musth once or twice a year, mainly during winter.

What Does Musth Smell Like?

It can smell different depending on the age of the elephant. Younger elephants smell sweet, while older ones have a certain stench. 

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