Weighing up to 6000 kg (6.6 tons) and measuring up to 3.3 m (10 ft.) at the shoulder, the African elephant is the world’s largest land mammal. It is characterized by its highly dexterous trunk, long curved tusks, and massive ears.
A combination of the upper lip and nose, an African elephant’s trunk is extremely versatile. Elephants use their trunk for smelling, breathing, detecting vibrations, caressing their young, sucking up water, and grasping objects. The tip of their trunk is comprised of two opposable extensions, or fingers, which allow for extreme dexterity.
Both male and female elephants possess tusks, which are modified incisor teeth. Although tusks are present at birth, the “baby tusks” fall out after a year, and permanent ones replace them. These tusks will continue to grow throughout the elephant’s life. Similar to the trunk, elephant tusks are utilized in a wide range of activities. They are used for digging, foraging, and fighting. At times, they also act as a resting place for the elephant’s very heavy trunk.
An African elephant’s large ears also serve many purposes. The ears’ large surface area helps radiate excess heat under the harsh African sun. The ears are also often used to communicate visually. Flapping their ears can signify either aggression or joy. And finally, elephants’ ears, used in conjunction with the soles of their feet and their trunk, aid in the ability to hear sounds over long distances. On average, an elephant can hear another elephant’s call at 4 km (2.5 mi.) away. Under ideal conditions, their range of hearing can be increased to 10 km (6.2 mi.).
Although elephants can make a very wide range of sounds (10 octaves), they mostly communicate through low frequency sounds called “rumbling.” In fact, elephants are capable of producing and perceiving sounds one to two octaves lower than the human hearing limit. As lower frequency sounds travel farther than their higher counterparts, their range of communication is extensive. Furthermore, elephants have the ability to judge the distance from another elephant based on the pitch of his/her call. As the sound travels over distances, the higher tones will fade out, leaving a lower pitch.
Communication is vital to elephants, who rely on a social network for survival. The sustaining social unit is a herd of mothers and their young, sisters, and female cousins, led by an older matriarch. Male elephants will leave the herd at around 14 years old when they hit puberty. They then join a loose-knit band of other bull elephants, leaving the bachelor herd at will to search for potential mates.
Upon successful mating, the male elephant will move on to other herds, and the female will start a 22-month gestation period. When the calf is born, aunts, sisters, and cousins all help care for the newborn. In this way, all the elephants of the herd learn essential lessons in rearing a baby. And since elephants only give birth once every 5 years, successfully raising their offspring is critical to their survival.
Aside from their ability to learn through watching and mimicking, African elephants also possess other very human qualities. Their great capacity for compassion is demonstrated as they care for the wounded and grieve the deceased. Their developed sense of memory allows them not only to remember lost loved ones, but also to harbor grudges, and recognize long-lost friends. Upon the return of a friend, elephants take part in a joyous greeting ceremony where they spin in circles, flap their ears, and trumpet.
Having adapted to life across Africa’s diverse ecosystems, the African elephant plays a vital role in maintaining ecological harmony. African elephants ingest plants and fruits, walk for miles, and excrete the seeds in fertile dung piles. In this way, new plants can grow in different areas and can cross fertilize. In fact, 90 different tree species rely on the elephant for propagation. African elephants also dig holes to expose underground springs. This allows smaller animals to access water in drier times.
- Elephant Interesting Facts
- Physical Characteristics
As African elephants act as a keystone species, it is vital to take steps in their conservation. Poaching and urban sprawl pose a massive threat to their survival. As such, the African elephant is classified as a vulnerable species under IUCN’s Red List.
What You Can Do to Help
There are several ways to help support African elephants. One way is to participate in eco-tourism. Boosting Africa’s economy through eco-tourism helps placate local residents who view elephants as pests.
The illegal ivory trade has skyrocketed in recent years. Decreasing the demand for ivory is essential. Never buy, sell, or wear ivory. Write to your politicians to speak out against poaching. (Americans can write a letter to the Secretary of State on the Wildlife Conservation Society website.) For information on organizations that combat the illegal ivory trade, see National Geographic’s page, Blood Ivory: How to Help.
In addition, you can help provide captive elephants with the best possibly life. Boycott circuses, whose unethical treatment includes chaining elephants up by their feet and trunks, as well as beating them frequently. Encourage zoos to create environments similar to African elephants’ native habitat. They should be able to encompass elephant families and their travel patterns, and they should be located in a warm climate so that the elephants can spend all year outside.
African Elephant Distribution
African elephants inhabit various ecosystems in sub-Saharan Africa.
- Elephant Voices
- PBS’s Nature Special “The Elephants of Africa”
- World Wildlife Fund’s Elephant Page
Blog Posts about the African Elephant
- Featured Quiz: African Animals – May 15, 2018
- Featured Animal: African Elephant – August 2, 2017
- World Elephant Day – August 12, 2016
- VIDEO: Baby Elephant Playing with Birds – July 31, 2015
- World Elephant Day – August 12, 2014
- Elephants at Play – May 17, 2013
- The Decline of Forest Elephants – April 2, 2013
- Elephant Calf at Toledo Zoo – June 6, 2011
- Baby African Elephant Arrives at San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park – March 18, 2009
- Study Shows Elephants Lead Shorter Lives in Zoos – December 16, 2008
About the Author
Abi Cushman is a contributing editor of Animal Fact Guide and My House Rabbit. When she’s not writing about weird animal facts, Abi writes and illustrates funny books for kids. Her debut picture book, Soaked!, comes out on July 14, 2020 from Viking Children’s Books.
To learn more and to download free activity sheets, visit www.abicushman.com.
Last updated on August 24, 2014.
Elephant Interesting Facts
Elephants can fine tune their body temperature using “hot spots” scattered around their bodies, according to research which questions the widely held belief that the animals use their giant ears to stay cool.
With their thick hides and lack of sweat glands, it has long been thought that elephants rely upon their distinctive large ears and bathing in rivers to stay cool in hot climates. New research, however, has revealed that the world’s largest land animals have a secret trick to control their own body temperatures. Using thermal cameras, biologists have discovered that the creatures’ bodies are covered in “hot spots” that can help them lose heat.
By directing their blood supply near to the surface of small patches of skin scattered around their bodies, elephants can lose heat rapidly, allowing them to fine-tune their internal temperature. Scientists have long been puzzled by temperature regulation in elephants. Typically, animals with large bodies tend to retain more heat because, relative to their bulk, they have a small surface area for heat to escape from. Elephants, with their heavyweight frames, would appear to be at a disadvantage in the fierce heat of their African and Asian habitats, especially because they lack sweat glands – used for cooling by other mammals – and have tough hides to protect them from spiny bushes and trees.
It was assumed by biologists that the creatures, which weigh up to 13 tons (12 tonnes) when fully-grown, had evolved large ears to help them stay cool. The skin in the ears is thinner, so blood pumped into them cools down more readily.
But findings by researchers at two universities in Vienna have revealed that elephants also able to cool down by increasing the blood flow to skin patches in other parts of their bodies.
Nicole Weissenböck, an ecologist at the city’s University of Veterinary Medicine, who led the research, said: “Elephants are the largest terrestrial mammals on earth today. “They are called pachyderms (from the Greek language for “thick skin”) because of their supposed thick and insensitive skin. “Our study clearly shows that this is only a myth – in fact the elephant’s skin must have more regional concentrations of vascular networks that has previously been appreciated.
“It is a fine-tuning mechanism in heat regulation.” The researchers took thermal images of six African elephants at Vienna Zoo as they moved between outdoor and indoor environments to see how the temperature on their skin surface would change. Bright yellow and white colours indicated the parts of their bodies from which the animals were losing the most heat. The researchers found up to 15 “hot spots” scattered all over an elephant’s body surface, in addition to large patches on the ears. The study, which is published in the Journal of Thermal Biology, shows how these patches expand as the air temperature increases and more blood flows nearer to the skin surface. Subsequent experiments showed that elephants in the wild use the same “thermal windows” to control their body temperature.
Elephants have two additional ways to stay cool: ear-flapping, which creates a breeze, and bathing, which cools the creatures when the water evaporates from their skin. Together with these tricks, the skin hot spots allow the animals to keep their body temperature constant at about 36 degrees C – one degree less than humans. Professor Fritz Vollrath, an expert on elephant behaviour at Oxford University, said it was possible the hot spots provided localised cooling for specific organs. He said: “This is an interesting study as it shows that elephants can and do flood blood through their ears independently and can open and close specific areas of their skin for blood cooling.”
Source Article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/wildlife/7663160/Elephants-use-hot-spots-to-stay-cool.html
The elephant’s trunk is an extension of the upper lip and nose. It functions for grasping, breathing, feeding, dusting, smelling, drinking, lifting, sound production/communication, defense/protection, and sensing.
The trunk contains an estimated 100,000 muscles and tendons in the trunk, giving it extreme flexibility and strength. Elephant trunks are capable of expanding, contracting, and moving in a diverse array of directions.
Asian elephants have one finger-like projection at the tip of the trunk and African elephants have two. These finger-like projections have many sensitive nerve endings and are capable of fine motor skills, such as grasping small and delicate objects.
An adult Asian elephant can hold up to 8.5 L (2.2 gal.) of water in its trunk. Water is sprayed into the mouth for drinking and onto the back to keep cool.
Elephants’ trunks and keen sense of smell are used to survey the environment. The trunk is raised and waived in the air to gather scent particles. Through the trunk, the scent particles are then carried to a specialized gland called the Jacobson’s organ, located in the roof of the mouth. The Jacobson’s organ is able to gather information about the elephant’s surroundings by detecting and analyzing molecules and particles from the air. Through this process, elephants are capable of locating water sources up to 19.2 km (12 mi.) away and can even determine the reproductive status of distant elephants.
Elephants can reach vegetation as high as 5.7 m (19 ft.) by rearing up onto their hind legs and extending their trunk.
Small sensory hairs extend the length of the elephant’s trunk enhance its sensitivity. These small hairs facilitate tactile communication during courtship and when caring for young.
Elephant trunks are very powerful-capable of uprooting an entire tree trunk, tearing down heavy branches, and delivering a forceful blow in self-defense.
Elephant ears are about one-sixth the size of its entire body and primarily function as a cooling mechanism. The ears contain extensive networks of tiny blood vessels, which are visible at the outer margins, where the skin is only about one to two mm (0.04 – 0.08 in.) thick. The warm blood cools as it circulates through the vessels in the ear, due to the thin layer of skin that separates it from the outside air. The cooler blood then circulates back into the body, helping reduce the overall body temperature of the elephant.
The size of elephant ears is proportionate to its geographic distribution. The closer to the equator the elephant resides, the larger the ears, allowing more heat to dissipate (remove) from the body, and therefore has larger ears. African elephants live closest to the equator and have the largest ears, followed by the Asian elephants. The now extinct woolly mammoth, lived near the North Pole, and had the smallest ears.
Elephants use their ears to funnel in sound waves from the environment, contributing to their keen sense of hearing.
Both African and Asian elephants have a total of 26 teeth including two upper incisors (tusks), 12 premolars (non-permanent teeth similar to baby teeth), and 12 molars. Asian elephants have smaller tusks than those of African elephants and females have smaller tusks than males.
Each adult male tusk weighs between 50 and 79 kg (110 – 175 lb.) and an adult female’s tusk weighs between 18 and 20 kg (40 – 44 lb.). One of the heaviest tusks ever weighed was more than 100 kg (220 lb.).
African elephants have diamond-shaped ridges on their molars, whereas Asian elephants have long cylindrical ridges on theirs. The ridges help elephants grind course vegetation.
Most mammals replace cheek teeth (premolars and molars) in a vertical manner. The new tooth develops and replaces the old one, from above in the upper jaw and from below in the lower jaw. In elephants, the replacement of the cheek teeth is a horizontal process. New teeth develop at the back of the mouth and progress forward until worn out at the front.
Each molar tooth is about the size of a brick and weighs between 1.8 and 2.0 kg (4-4.5 lb.). Elephant molar teeth are replaced six times during its lifetime.
Elephants are born with temporary incisors (tusks) that are replaced with permanent ones between six and 13 months of age. Permanent tusks grow continuously at a rate of about 17 cm (6.7 in.) per year, reaching lengths of up to 3.5 m (7.7 ft.) for adult African male elephants.
The upper one-third of an elephant’s tusk, where it is embedded in the bone of the upper jaw, is mostly hollow and carries a single nerve. The top third embedded portion of the tusk functions as an anchor when digging and uprooting vegetation and aids defense.
Elephant ivory is distinguished from other animal dentition by its unique cross section patterning. An elephant tusk cross section shows diamond-shaped striations, called “engine turning” and is unique to elephants.
Similar to humans, elephants may be “left or right-handed,” meaning there is a preference to use one tusk over the other. As a result, one tusk may be more worn than the other.
Musth Gland/Temporal Gland
Asian and African elephants have a musth gland located just beneath the skin’s surface, halfway between the eye and ear on each side of their head.
The musth gland may be associated with sexual activity and/or communication.
Annually, musth glands secrete a dark, oily, musky substance and become inflamed. This physiological change is associated with a behavior observed in male elephants called musth.
Refer to musth in the Behavior section.
The skeleton of an elephant’s foot is angled, with a large pad of fat and connective tissue at the heel. The angled foot structure means that elephants walk on their tiptoes with their body weight evenly distributed across the fatty/connective tissue at the heel. Ex: An adult male Asian elephant that is 2.88 m (9.5 ft.) in height and weighs about 4,167 kg (9,259 lb.) distributes just 3.8 kg (8.5 lb.) of weight per square inch on its heels.
The elephant’s unique foot structure enables secure movement over uneven terrain and swampy ground.
Elephant skin is wrinkled in appearance, with African elephants more wrinkled than Asian elephants. Wrinkles act as a cooling mechanism by increasing the skin’s surface area. The additional skin and wrinkles trap moisture, which then takes longer to evaporate. Therefore, wrinkles keep elephants cooler, for longer, than if they had smooth skin.
Asian elephants are less wrinkled in appearance than African elephants because they primarily inhabit forested habitats. Temperatures are not as hot in forested areas, thereby reducing the need for forest-dwelling elephants to cool themselves.
Elephant skin can be up to 3.8 cm (1.5 in.) thick in certain places. However, the skin is sensitive to touch, detecting insects and changes in its environment.
The combination of thick skin and a thin layer of fat beneath the skin enable the elephant to tolerate cold temperatures.
Overall skin coloration for elephants is grey. However, Asian elephants have a freckled appearance due to distinct patches of depigmentation, especially on the trunk.
Elephants have sparse hair distributed unevenly on their body, with the most noticeable concentrations around the eyes, ear openings, chin, and tail.
Young elephants are hairier than adults and their hair is reddish-brown in color. As they mature, the amount of hair is reduced and becomes darker.
Elephants have the largest brain of any land mammal, weighing between 4.5 to 5.5 kg (10-12 lb.).
Elephants have highly developed cerebrums and cerebellums- portions of the brain involved in movement and muscle coordination.
Elephants have large temporal lobes-portions of the brain which facilitate memory.
Elephants have excellent long-term memory and are capable of remembering experiences for long periods of time. Research has shown that elephants are able to recognize other herd members decades after they have last interacted with them.
The average weight for an elephant heart is about 12 to 21 kg (26.5-46.3 lb.) and comprises about 0.5% of the animal’s total body weight.
Elephants have an atypical shaped heart. Most mammals, including humans, have a single-pointed apex at the base (heart-shaped). Elephants have a double-pointed apex at the base, lessening the heart-shaped appearance, and giving it a more circular shape.
Stomach and Intestines
Elephants have a cylindrical-shaped stomach. The stomach primarily functions in food storage. Digestion takes place in the cecum (pouch connected to the large intestine). The combined length of the small and large intestines is about 35 m (100 ft.) in length.
Most mammals breathe air by expanding their chest, through muscular action. When the chest is expanded, a membrane (visceral pleura) attached to the lungs remains still while another membrane (parietal pleura) attached to the chest wall expands outward. The fluid-filled space between the two membranes is called the pleural cavity which widens during chest expansion. The widened pleural cavity helps create a vacuum-like effect, allowing air to be pulled into the lungs.
This process differs in elephants because they do not have a pleural cavity. Their lungs are directly attached to the chest wall and therefore rely on direct muscular action to expand the lungs. This direct muscular control enables underwater breathing with the trunk used as a snorkel.