Definition of Musth

From the elephant glossary Section: ethology

Wild elephant bull in India in musth. Photo: Wikimedia
Wild elephant bull in India in musth. Photo: Wikimedia
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Relevant Literature about Musth
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Musth is a sexually aggressive period among among Adult male elephants, (over 15-20 years old) sometimes referred to as similar to male deer's "Rutting".

There is normally a three weeks pre-musth-condition, about one-month high-musth, and one post-musth condition. Their temporal glands become swollen, from where a strong smelling fluid (in India called Dana, rich in testosterone which flows from the temporal glands and runs down their cheeks. During Musth the males are very aggressive and sexually active.

According to Cynthia Moss, author of the book elephant memories, the older females in a Herd give passage to musth males when a female is in estrous, while they block the way for younger males, not in musth. But males are always able to cover a female, also outside the musth period.

Recently it was discovered that long-term administration of leuprolide acetate (LA) depot reduces the musth. Early musth signs ceased within 3 days of drug administration after 10 of 12 injections.

The reason for the musth seems to be that it prevents inbreeding. If the bulls would not be at their aggressive peak only for a month a year, only the largest, most dominant bull would cover the females all the time. In captivity, the limited space makes it dangerous to let a bull in must condition to a female, since she may be attacked and wounded if she is not willing to mate.

Most cases of captive elephants killing their handlers, or reports of a"rogue" wild elephant running wild through villages and attacking people, is during musth, when they get out of control, and their level of aggression is high.

Younger bulls usually also go into a similar condition, from about their tenth year, but not so strong, and not so long time usually, a couple of days or a week, but may come in the condition more often, and may go in and out of musth more frequently, why the periods between the musth is described as Inter-musth.

Older bulls develop stronger musth every year, with a peak between 30 and 40, then gradually showing fewer symptoms.

Bulls aged over 55 does seldom show Musth at all. Many Indian Mahouts claim that Makhnas show lesser Musth than Tuskers . (Koehl, direct interviews of Mahouts , 1988)
In captivity, Asian bulls are claimed to have been in musth for over a year, (Hellabrunn Zoo, Munich) or longer. (Chieng Mai in Copenhagen Zoo) often in the winter period when there is less sunlight.

African bulls in Zoo may start musth at an older age, some starting to have only light musth at 18-20 years. (Kibo in Boras Zoo)

Asian Wild bulls often go into musth during the rainy season, and when they have had unnormal access of food, so the reason for the longer musth periods in captivity may have a connection with the short days during winters, (hormones often depend on daylight) over-feeding, and under stimulation.

From Musth and sexual selection in elephants: a review of signaling properties and potential fitness consequences Musth is characterized by a suite of physiological and behavioral changes, serving to facilitate copulation between the sexes, and via multisensory modalities, musth conveys honest information about the condition of a male. Female elephants mate preferentially with musth males, increasing their own fitness in the absence of direct benefits. In addition, Musth resolves dynamic dominance hierarchies among male elephants and often eliminates the need for costly physical combat. Musth and sexual selection in elephants: a review of signaling properties and potential fitness consequences, Chase A. LaDue, Bruce A. Schulte, Wendy K. Kiso, and Elizabeth W. Freeman

Records about Musth from the Gajah Glossary at Musth (Jtdu/Hindustani):([also: mada, madha, mast, mudda, must ; see also: sexually-active /inactive, Jainudeen et al.1972; Poole & Moss 1981; Hall-Martin 1987; Poole 1987; Poole 1989a)

From the ancient Sanskrit word (mada ) which means "intoxication, excitement, rapture". Period of heightened sexual activity in mature males (average onset 29 years old), characterized by urine-dribbling, G.P., strong odor, increased aggression, swollen temporal glands, T.G.S., and elevated testosterone levels. Sometimes called a form of "sexual insanity" (Williams 1989:125). Musth has also been used to refer to the dark, strong-smelling, oily substance exuded from a male Asian elephant temporal! gland, although this term is not used for African elephants where both sexes secrete from the temporal glands. The term is mudda or madha in Sri Lanka; mon-Igrathi, mon-kyatti, mone, or mong-gyin in Burma.

M. Philip Kahl and Charles Santiapillai, Gajah Elephant Glossary, Gajah nr 23 (2004), Journal for Asian Elephant Specialist Group

Notes about Bandula (Bandoola) in Dehivela Zoo, Sri Lanka, by Wayne Jackson, Canada he can work with all Mahouts , but at musth times he is very bad, he is in musth Feb. and March for five to six months, and at that time no one goes near him with the exception of the head Mahout, the first couple months of his musth he is taken for a bath, after that he stays in the barn.

Last year he was in a lot of trouble, he tried to destroy the shed for the first 2-3 months and then on all 4 legs, if he is turning very bad, the musth oil is washed off, and when he comes out of musth the musth glands on the head are cleaned out and oil put in, the oil comes from cow's milk, called "ghee", then he will come into musth for 1-2 months, he didn't come into musth before, because he wasn't fit. when he was 22 he came into Musth for 4 days to a week but didn't come in the following year
Wayne Jackson, Canada

Notes 29 September 1998, by George Frei, ex-elephant keeper, Zurich Zoo In the last year's Maxis musth time is in the winter. It starts in December or January and ends in June or July, and his musth takes nearly a half year. We notice, when we clean his stable floor with water, that about 2 months before the musth really begins, the floor foams. At this time he is very horny, he tries it by all cows. George Frei

Notes by Fred Kurt and Khyne U Mar in Gajah 22 July 2003 (Myanmar) Bulls in Musth are not allowed to be put in the workforce and are given rest in secluded areas. However, during the pre-musth period, when most of the mating takes place, captive bulls can roam free during the night Fred Kurt and Khyne U Mar

Testosterone histories from Tusks reveal woolly mammoth musth episodesHere we use liquid chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry paired with fine-scale serial sampling to measure steroid hormone concentrations in modern and fossil tusk dentin. An Adult male African elephant (Loxodonta africana) tusk shows periodic increases in testosterone that reveal episodes of musth17, an annually recurring period of behavioral and physiological changes that enhance mating success.

Parallel assessments of a male woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) tusk show that mammoths also experienced musth.

Testosterone histories from Tusks reveal woolly mammoth musth episodes, May 3, 2023,

Internal relevant links on website

Musth mentioned in The Elephant Database
  • No country match the word Musth in the database.

2 locations holdings in the elephant database match the word Musth.

38 elephants in the elephant database match the word Musth

Reference list Koehl, Dan, (2024). Musth. Elephant Encyclopedia, available online retrieved 20 September 2021 at (archived at the Wayback machine)

Sources used for this article is among others:

  • Musth and sexual selection in elephants: a review of signaling properties and potential fitness consequences, Chase A. LaDue, Bruce A. Schulte, Wendy K. Kiso, and Elizabeth W. Freeman
  • de Oliveira, C. A., West, G. D., Houck, R., and Leblanc, M. Control of musth in an Asian elephant bull (Elephas maximus) using leuprolide acetate. Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine 35[1], 70-76. 2004.
  • Elephant staff, Boras Zoo
  • Elephant staff, Copenhagen Zoo
  • Wayne Jackson, Canada
  • George Frei, website at
  • Guidelines for the management of captive Asian elephants and the possible role of the IUCN/SSC Asian Elephant Specialist Group, by Fred Kurt and Khyne U Mar, Gajah 22 July 2003, available online at
  • Testosterone histories from tusks reveal woolly mammoth musth episodes, May 3, 2023.

Selected publications
  • Musth and sexual selection in elephants: a review of signaling properties and potential fitness consequences, Chase A. LaDue1, Bruce A. Schulte2, Wendy K. Kiso3, and Elizabeth W. Freeman, available online at
  • Chatchote Thitaram; Influence of season, tourist activities and camp management on body condition, testicular and adrenal steroids, lipid profiles, and metabolic status in captive Asian elephant bulls in Thailand, online at
  • Brown JL, Somerville M, Riddle HS, Keele M, Duer CK, Freeman EW. Comparative endocrinology of testicular, adrenal and thyroid function in captive Asian and African elephant bulls. Gen Comp Endocrinol. 2007; 151(2):153–62. PMID: 17336304

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Categories glossary | ethology

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