Most animals don't have grandmas. But elephants do. And what Granny does is awesome.

For those of us lucky enough to have grandmas (and grandpas!), we know they can be a blessing.

Grandparents can be sources of wisdom, comfort, or joy. Not to mention that many of us actually grew up with our grandparents — family doesn't just mean a mom and dad raising kids. We're a lot more diverse than that.

In fact, the percentage of kids living in households run by a grandparent has more than doubled from about 3% in the 1970s to about 7% now — that's more than 5 million grandkids, as of 2012, getting the care they need.


So I think it's fair to say we're really lucky to have grandparents.

You know who else is really lucky to have a grandma? This little guy.

Turns out that elephant grandmas are very important too!

Elephants often live in large families made up of babies, juveniles, and females. They're often led by the oldest of these females, which often have a really important social role in their families.

Professor Phyllis Lee wanted to know more about how these families worked. And in her research, she found something surprising — having a grandma made a huge difference in whether a new baby survived.

"It was an unexpected finding for us," said Lee. "We didn't think we'd find that very positive relationship between having a grandmother present and how well the daughters were doing in terms of reproduction."

Only a handful of animals — mostly humans and other primates, whales, and elephants — get to have grandmas.

For most animals, living and having babies are tied together; you basically only stop having babies when you die. This makes animals like elephants, which can live long after they're done reproducing, pretty rare.

Part of the reason elephants are special comes from the fact that they live so long. They can live up to 70 years! Many other animals simply don't live long enough to really see their children's children. 

But even if they do, other animals don't necessarily have any significant bond to the kid. You don't see millipede grandmas, for example. 

In fact, in many species, the mom and grandmother will end up fighting each other for resources if they're in the same area. But not in elephants. 

"Elephants are really nice and supportive," said Lee. 

(By the way, sorry Grandpa, but there aren't really any male equivalents here. Male elephants tend to go off on their own after they reach puberty. And though they can live long enough to see their children's children, they don't really have a family role. Which, when you think about it, just makes human grandpas even more special.)

It's not unusual for the entire herd to help raise a new baby, even if it's not directly related to them. Image from Brenda/Flickr.

What do elephant grandmas do for their families?

Elephant grandmas help protect the baby, keep track of it, and help it if it gets stuck. 

Grandmas are also often the boss of the family, too. They can lead the family to the right places to forage or drink or lead the way when interacting with other elephant families.

Knowing where to find water can be really important on the savanna. Image from ninara/Flickr.

Part of what made Lee's study special was the place they worked and the sheer amount of data they used.

Lee looked at data from more than 800 individual elephants in Kenya's Amboseli National Park. Researchers have been watching elephants in Amboseli for more than four decades

That's the kind of records you need when you study an animal that can live as long as a human. 

"We're only halfway there, we need another 40 years of data," said Lee. 

Her work is also interesting because it could give us hints about our own species – like why we go through menopause, for example. It was published in Springer's journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

Animals can have families just as complex and diverse as our own.

Next time you meet someone who grew up with their grandma, let them know that they're like an elephant. 

All of this makes me want to give a certain someone a hug.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less
Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less