How Elephants are Opening Doors: Developmental Neuroethology, Attachment and Social Context


  • G. A. Bradshaw,

    1. Kerulos Centre for Animal Psychology and Trauma Recovery
    2. Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, CA, USA
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  • Allan N. Schore

    1. Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioural Sciences, David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California at Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, USA
    2. UCLA Center for Culture, Brain, and Development, Northridge, CA, USA
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G.A. Bradshaw, 800 Beavercreek Road, Jacksonville, OR 97530, USA.


Ethology's renewed interest in developmental context coincides with recent insights from neurobiology and psychology on early attachment. Attachment and social learning are understood as fundamental mechanisms in development that shape core processes responsible for informing behaviour throughout a lifetime. Each field uniquely contributes to the creation of an integrated model and encourages dialogue between Tinbergen's four analytical levels: ethology in its underscoring of social systems of behaviour and context, psychology in its emphasis on socio-affective attachment transactions, and neuroscience in its explication of the coupled development of brain and behaviour. We review the relationship between developmental context and behaviour outcome as a topic shared by the three disciplines, with a specific focus on underlying neuroethological mechanisms. This interdisciplinary convergence is illustrated through the example of abnormal behaviour in wild African elephants (Loxodonta africana) that has been systematically observed in human-caused altered social contexts. Such disruptions impair normative socially mediated neuroendocrinological development leading to psychobiological dysregulation that expresses as non-normative behaviour. Aberrant behaviour in wild elephants provides a critical field example of what has been established in ex situ and clinical studies but has been largely absent in wild populations: a concrete link between effects of human disturbance on social context, and short- and long-term neuroethology. By so doing, it brings attention to the significant change in theories of behaviour that has been occurring across disciplines – namely, the merging of psychobiological and ethological perspectives into common, cross-species, human inclusive models.