In Sri Lanka’s Uda Walawe National Park, a peculiarly small adult male elephant first caught the attention of researchers in 2013. Dwarfism, when individuals are proportionately or disproportionately smaller than average, is known in many species, but it’s rarely been documented in the wild. In endangered Asian elephants (E. maximus maximus), dwarfism cases had been previously suspected but not substantiated. So researchers who'd been observing the park’s elephant population since 2006 were excited to record the behaviour of this fully grown dwarf elephant. With a large head for its size and slightly shorter limbs, he represents an example of disproportionate dwarfism. 

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Image: Shermin de Silva, Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project.

In 2014 the Walawe dwarf made an appearance in a state of musth. Pumped up on testosterone, elephants in musth enter an aggressive, ultra-competitive state. Their temporal glands bulge and males typically dribble urine, creating a scent trail. Musth advertises: 'I’m a bull on a mission to mate.’

Despite its height of only two metres, the dwarf male waged an all-out battle with another full-sized musth bull. And to the surprise of researchers, including Dr Shermin de Silva, director of the Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project, the little guy appeared to be winning the contest – despite being 25% smaller than his rival.

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Image: Shermin de Silva, Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project.
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Image: Shermin de Silva, Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project.

Bulk is usually a bonus in musth-hyped battles, but this small-but-mighty male apparently had an advantage: his low centre of gravity. With the force of a battering ram, "what he lacked in speed he made up for in power," explains de Silva. The dwarf male appeared to be the one picking the fights, putting his trunk up against or leaning on the larger male, sometimes even charging or lunging at him. “The taller bull seemed to be avoiding the dwarf,” explains de Silva, whose colleagues filmed the encounter.

So did this feisty dwarf bull get lucky with the females? That’s unclear ... and de Silva speculates that when partners are mismatched in size, the mechanics of copulation could be an elephantine challenge.