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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Walter Elliot   7 September 1869

Wolfelee | Hawick | N.B.

7th. Sepr. 1869

Dear Mr Darwin

In case you have not seen the Proceedgs. Asiatic Socy Bengal, I extract the following notice of the polygamous habits of the Asiatic Elephant, by Lieut’ Johnstone, Superintendt Kheddas, Cuttack Tributary, Mahals, which are particularly trustworthy:1

“The average number of a herd of elephants is about 20 or 25, they have a female at their head, who leads the way;—in the cold weather, three or four herds often join together; & when a female is in heat a male joins them, otherwise the males remain apart.”

“often a large male is seen attended by 3 or 4 smaller ones.”

“Males when with the herd, never help to defend the others from any outward attack, but are generally the first to run.” Procgs. for 1868. p. 128 (May)

He also mentions that, in a herd of 30 to 40, it is not unusual to find only one really old female, the average duration of life being 80 to 100 years. He has also observed that, a large proportion of the males are puny & stunted, tho’ why, he does not understand. “Of those that attain a large size (say 1 in 10) the smallest are always killed or turned out of the herd by the larger ones, wh. tends to keep up the size of the breed”.2

By some accident this No was not sent to me last year, in regular course; & I have only just recd it.

Believe me Yours very truly | Walter Elliot

Charles Darwin Esq

CD annotations

1.3 which … trustworthy: 1.4] underl blue crayon
5.4 “Of … breed”. 5.6] double scored blue crayon


Elliot refers to James Johnstone and Johnstone 1868, pp. 128–9. CD cited the paper in Descent 1: 268, n. 7. Cuttack was a tributory state (or ‘Mahal’) in east India (see Mohapatra 2005). It is now a district in the state of Orissa (Columbia gazetteer of the world).
Johnstone 1868, p. 128. CD cited the paper in Descent 1: 268, n. 5.


Columbia gazetteer of the world: The Columbia gazetteer of the world. Edited by Saul B. Cohen. 3 vols. New York: Columbia University Press. 1998.

Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

Johnstone, J. 1868. Notes on elephants. [Read 6 May 1868.] Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (1868): 127–9.

Mohapatra, Hemanta Kumar. 2005. Oriya speaking feudatory states. Orissa Review (August 2005): 17–26.


Sends excerpt on polygamous breeding habits of Asiatic elephants by Lieut. Johnstone [Proc. Asiat. Soc. Bengal (1868): 128]. [See Descent 1: 268.]

Letter details

Letter no.
Walter Elliot
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 86: A74
Physical description
2pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6880,” accessed on 24 January 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 17