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The African Elephant

Loxodonta Africana cyclotis (forest elephant)
Loxodonta Africana Africana (savanna elephant)

by Lynn Bremner

Elephant

The majestic and stately elephant has long fascinated the human imagination. The elephant's expressive trunk and ponderous walk, combined with the its status as the largest living land mammal, make it an iconic creature. Having a "memory like an elephant" is a well known phrase hinting at a wealth of tales, some of which include an elephant's memory for other elephants or humans over long periods of time, as well as stories of its sadness over the passing of another elephant. Elephants have been known to caress tusks and bones of skeleton elephants, as if in mourning. Their lifespan of 60 to 70 years is close to a human, making them fairly long lived in the animal kingdom. This is due, in part, to the paucity of predators that can take on an adult elephant. Humans are really their only real predator after they reach adulthood.

Range & Habitat

The African Elephant is found in 37 countries in Africa.

Description

There are three species of elephant: African Bush Elephant, The African Forest Elephant and the Asian Elephant (aka Indian Elephant). They are known as the largest living mammals. Elephants have a keen intelligence and an excellent memory.

  • Large flapping ears 6.5 feet wide by 5 feet (Asian Elephants' ears are somewhat smaller)
  • Ivory tusks about 10 feet long in both African male and females (Asian females have smaller trunks than males)
  • Long trunk with two fingerlike projections at the tip (Asian elephants have only one projection)
  • Tough, thick grayish skin, sometimes red or brown in color.
  • Some hair on body
  • Two pairs of large, straight, pillar-like legs
  • Round, pad-like feet with three nails on the hind feet and four on the front (Indian elephants have four nails on hind feet and five on the front)
  • Males weigh from 11,000 to 13,5000 lbs
  • Females weigh 6600 – 7700 lbs
  • Males are approximately 9’ 10” to 11’ tall
  • Females are approximately 8’ 4” tall

The trunk is a very distinct characteristic of the elephant. With over 40,000 muscles, it is a sensitive, yet strong appendage. The fingerlike projections help an elephant graze or grab objects of varying size and weight. The trunk is used for many purposes in addition to smelling, feeding and bathing. Used to communicate in social interactions, the trunk may be intertwined with another elephant’s trunk in a type of greeting or sign of affection. A raised trunk is a sign of aggression and dominance and a lowered trunk indicates submission.

An elephant’s tusks are made of ivory and grow continuously. They are considered the upper second incisors or part of their teeth. They are used to dig, break down parts of trees for consumption and for clearing brush or trees to create a path. Elephants also use their tusks to mark their territory and as a defensive weapon. Poachers hunt and kill elephants for the value of their ivory tusks. It is because of this that the world’s elephant population has declined so rapidly.

As elephants age, their teeth go through a cycle of rotation. The molars are replaced about five times during an elephant’s lifetime. As the elephant reaches its last cycle of teeth, they become worn down and it is harder for the elephant to eat and feed. Elderly elephants roam to find softer food in marshy areas. At the end of their life, when their teeth are gone, they die of starvation. As their habitat is depleted, elephants will start dying at a younger age as softer food found in marshy areas is no longer available to aging elephants.

Behavior

Elephants roam the African desert in groups called herds. They consist of families of elephants including young males, and related females, old and young. The leader of the herd is the oldest female and she is referred to as a “matriarch.” The matriarchs have the most knowledge of food and water sources and of their range area. The matriarch leads the herd and decides when the herd will eat, when they will move to a new location and when they will charge or retreat from a threat. During a threat the herd will group around the matriarch with the young calves in the center to protect them. If the matriarch is injured, the herd gets confused and panics. The herd however, does not abandon her; they stay nearby to try to help or protect her, often getting killed or shot at if a poacher is the aggressor. If the matriarch becomes ill or dies, the next oldest female takes her place as the new matriarch.

Once the males mature and leave the herd, they live alone or with other males in bachelor herds, on the fringes of the female groups.

The female elephants are social and they not only interact with nearby males, but with other herds of females that live in the same range. The herds consist of five to 15 elephants. If a herd gets too big, a group of young females will split off to form their own herd. The new groups created from a family group dividing are called “bond groups.” Bond groups continue to live nearby and to communicate with their original family group. Passing groups of elephants will greet each other, using trunks to touch and caress one another.

Avid swimmers, elephants enjoy water. They like to wallow in water and mud, coating their skin with mud to protect it from the sun and from insects. Wallowing also helps an elephant control its body temperature in the hotter desert climates. The surface of an elephant’s skin is small compared to its body mass, making the skin’s cooling process more challenging. The mud coating seems to help cool down their body temperature and protect their sensitive skin.

Their large flapping ears are also used to help cool their bodies. The surface area of their ears is considerable, and covered with many small blood vessels. By flopping or fanning their ears, they are able to cool the blood running through the ears by at least 10 degrees, which circulates back into their body, aiding in the cooling process.

Elephants are not able to jump, gallop or trot. They can only walk and speed up to a faster gait similar to running. The faster gait can reach top speeds of 25 miles per hour. Their average walking speed is 4 to 8 miles per hour.

Active during day and night hours, elephants feed for about 16 hours per day. They sleep either standing or laying on their side.

Voice and Communication

Elephants often communicate with low-frequency sounds that are not audible to the human ear. These low-frequency sounds can be heard by other elephants up to 5 or 6 miles away. Rumbling and grumbling or growling noises are the most common of sounds used for communication, though they have also been known to trill, squeal, snort and groan. Elephants also make a very loud blast or trumpeting call indicating danger and alerting other nearby elephants to form a circle to protect the young.

Diet

Elephants are herbivores that use their trunks to tear up food and place it in their mouths. The trunk of the elephant can handle both large and small pieces of vegetation ranging from a blade of grass to a big branch. This gives the elephant the ability to graze on grass or reach higher growing vegetation such as tree leaves and branches. They can stand on their hind legs to reach up into tall trees as well. Elephants will sometimes knock a tree over to get at food that is higher than they can reach. They consume about 350 lbs of food per day. Much of what they consume is passed through to their dung undigested, explaining their need to consume so much on a daily basis. Their intestines are about 115 feet long and weigh close to a ton when full.

Elephants can suck in and hold about 15 quarts of water at a time in their trunk, though it is then taken into the mouth, never coming through their noses. Large adult elephants may consume between 30 to 60 gallons of water per day. They can take in about 26 gallons per drinking session. They then blow the water into their mouth to drink or over their bodies to bath.

Lifecyle and breeding

The gestation period of a desert elephant is 22 months. At birth, the baby elephants, also called calves, weigh approximately 260 lbs. The calves are nursed for about two years. Sometimes related females will cross suckle each other’s calves. Much of an elephant's behavior is taught; young elephants remain very close to their mother’s side even after they are weaned.

Elephants reach sexual maturity and are able to reproduce at 10 to 12 years of age. Young males at this age will leave their herd to venture out and to meet other males who will continue to teach them adult male behavior. Young female elephants stay with their original herd. Females breed about every four to nine years. The lifespan of an elephant is about 60 to 70 years.

Predators

Adult elephants have no natural predators, but their calves are sometimes hunted by lions. Humans are the main predators of elephants and poaching is a continuing problem. The population of elephants is dwindling and they are a protected species.

Interesting Facts

  • Elephants are the largest land animals
  • The gestation period of an elephant is 22 month, the longest of any land animal
  • Elephants often pick up and examine bones and tusks from dead elephants. It is a myth, however, that they take the bones to special burial areas.
  • Elephants take care of their sick, injured or weak family group members

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