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Distinguish from must.
An Asian Elephant bull chained during musth. Note the discharge from the temporal glands.

Musth (alternatively spelled must) IPA: /mʌst/ is a periodic condition in bull elephants, characterized by highly aggressive behavior, accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones - testosterone levels in an elephant in musth can be as much as 60 times greater than in the same elephant at other times. However, whether this hormonal surge is the sole cause of musth, or merely a contributing factor, is unknown; scientific investigation of musth is greatly hindered because, during musth, even the most otherwise placid of elephants may try to kill any and all humans.


Cause and effects

Although it has often been speculated that musth is linked to rut, this is unlikely because the female elephant's estrus cycle is not seasonally-linked, whereas musth most often takes place in winter. Furthermore, bulls in musth have often been known to attack female elephants, regardless of whether or not the females are in heat. Connections to dominance behaviour have also been speculated.

Often, elephants in musth discharge a thick tar-like secretion called temporin from the temporal ducts on the sides of the head. Temporin remains largely uncharacterised, due to the difficulties of collecting samples for analysis; however, secretions and urine collected from zoo elephants have been shown to contain elevated levels of various highly odorous ketones and aldehydes. The elephant's aggression may be partially caused by a reaction to the temporin, which naturally trickles down into the elephant's mouth. Another contributing factor may be the accompanying swelling of the temporal glands; this presses on the elephant's eyes and causes acute pain comparable to severe root abscess toothache. One elephant behaviour to try to counteract this is to dig his tusks into the ground.

An African elephant chases a giraffe during musth.

Musth is linked to sexual arousal or establishing dominance, but this relationship is far from clear. Cases of elephants goring and killing rhinoceroses in national parks in Africa have been documented and attributed to musth in young male elephants, especially those growing in the absence of older males. Studies show that reintroducing older males into the elephant population of the area seems to prevent younger males from entering musth, and therefore, stop this aggressive behavior.[1][2]


In domesticated elephants

A musth elephant, wild or domesticated, is extremely dangerous to humans. In zoos, musth has been the cause of fatal accidents to elephant keepers. Zoos keeping adult male elephants need extremely secure enclosures, which greatly complicates the attempts to breed elephants in zoos.

Domesticated elephants on musth in India are traditionally tied to a strong tree, or two strong trees, and denied food and water, or put on a starvation diet, for several days, after which the musth passes. Mahouts are often able to greatly shorten the duration of their elephants' musth, typically to 5 to 7 days; xylazine is also used.

Another method is to chain the elephant separately for nearly a month and give it special medicinal food. During this time, the elephant is not used for work or religious processions.

As mahouts work with Indian elephants, the starvation technique has not been tried on African elephants.


The word is derived from Persian مست (mast, pronounced [mæst]), which means "intoxicated" though in modern usage, refers to a state of enjoyment, fun, pleasure or gratification—of any kind, experienced by humans or other creatures. In popular culture, the word is encountered frequently, in popular song lyrics, in the titles of Indian TV shows and in the titles of Bollywood movies, such as Masti (2004), and the Kannada movie Masti (2007).


  1. ^ "Killing of black and white rhinoceroses by African elephants in Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park, South Africa" by Rob Slotow, Dave Balfour, and Owen Howison. Pachyderm 31 (July-December, 2001):14-20. Accessed 14 September 2007.
  2. ^ Siebert, Charles (2006-10-08). "An Elephant Crackup?". New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 2007-06-16.  

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