Common Name: African Elephants, Asian Elephants
A.K.A.: Loxodonta africana, Elephas maximus
- Comprise the entirety of Family Elephantidae and Order Proboscidea
- African elephants are thought by some to be two species; the African Forest Elephant, and the African Bush Elephant
- Can live for up to 70 years in the wild
- The largest living terrestrial animals, reaching heights of up to 4m (13’) and weights of up to 7000kg (15,000lbs.)
- Consume up to 150kg (330lbs.) of food daily
Found: Savannahs, bushlands, and forests in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia (but sparsely across these regions)
It Does What?!
Everyone knows elephants are cool. And weird looking. What they don’t tend to get a lot of credit for is just what complex lives they live, and how well-adapted they are to their surroundings. Far from being the dim, bovine, eating machines they’re often depicted as, elephants have been found to have an intelligence and self-awareness ranking up around that of primates and cetaceans, with comparably nuanced societies.
Elephant herds are matriarchal, being led by the oldest female and consisting of her close female relatives and their young offspring. Males are given the boot around the time they reach sexual maturity during their teens (because even the most intelligent animals find teenage boys a trial) and live the rest of their lives either alone or with a small pack of other exiled males.
Good parenting and discipline (delivered by mom with a swat of the trunk) seem to be extremely important for young male elephants; when orphaned males were introduced to a game reserve in South Africa in the late ‘90s, they immediately began going on killing sprees, hunting down and violently killing over 30 (endangered) rhinos, a completely abnormal behaviour for an elephant. As soon as well-adjusted adult males were introduced, the aggression stopped. Everybody needs a good role-model, I guess.
You may have heard stories about so-called “elephant graveyards,” where elephants go to die and leave remains near those of their relatives. While these have now been found to be a myth, appearing due to large die-offs happening suddenly in times of drought, it’s true that elephants show an inordinate amount of interest in the carcasses and bones of other elephants. Presented with a set of bones, elephants will become highly agitated and touch the bones repeatedly with their trunks, especially the dead animal’s tusks. Researchers speculate that this is because the tusks feel the same as they did in life, and touching is such an important aspect of elephant society. They are the only known animal outside of humans to take a particular interest in the bones of their species.
And what about their most obviously bizarre feature? How did a prehensile nose develop?! It’s hard to say for sure, but one interesting theory comes from the fact that elephants use their trunks as snorkels while swimming, sometimes crossing shallow lakes by simply walking across the bottom with only their noses above water. Given that manatees are one of elephants’ closest relatives, some scientists have speculated that elephants evolved from aquatic mammals, slowly becoming terrestrial, but never losing their once-important snorkel. (Or their internal testicles, another trait associated with an aquatic lifestyle.) Other scientists think those guys don’t know what they’re talking about and lack evidence to support this theory. So it goes in science.
Whatever their origin, elephants’ trunks have become enormously important in their lives, and are used in everything from eating to fighting to bonding with family members. Actually a fusion of the nose and upper lip, trunks have over 100,000 muscles and are sensitive enough to crack open a peanut shell and retrieve the seed from it. The ability to grasp comes from one or two (in Asian and African elephants, respectively) finger-like extensions at the trunk’s tip. These “fingers,” combined with the elephants’ high degree of intelligence, have allowed them to learn the use of several tools, including tree-branch fly-swatters, which they probably invented millions of years before we came up with the idea. Different priorities…
And finally, let’s not forget the dearly departed cousins. While African and Asian elephants are the only remaining species of Proboscidea, the order containing both mammoths and mastodons, there were once over 160 of them, inhabiting every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Most of these persisted until the most recent ice age killed off nearly all of the largest mammals. Some systematists believe that Asian elephants are in fact more closely related to woolly mammoths than they are to African elephants, and it’s even been speculated that a cloned mammoth could some day be gestated in the womb of an Asian elephant. ‘Cause if we learned anything from Jurassic Park, it’s that reanimating extinct megafauna is a great idea.
- Elephants use ‘seismic communication,’ transmitting messages via a low-pitched rumble, which is detected by distant elephants using the pads of their feet.
- While they can move surprisingly quickly, elephants don’t technically “run,” due to the fact that their legs never all leave the ground simultaneously.
- It’s a common myth that elephants get drunk eating fermented marula fruits which have fallen to the ground. Given the low level of alcohol which accumulates in rotting fruit, an animal the size of an elephant would have to eat an unrealistically huge amount in a short time to reach a high enough blood alcohol level. But they do seem to enjoy them as a snack.
- Choi (2011) “Woolly Mammoths Could Be Cloned Someday, Scientist Says”. Live Science.
- McComb et al. (2006) Biology Letters 2: 26-28
- Morris et al. (2006) Physiological and Biochemical Zoology 79(2): 363-369
- Shoshani (1998) TREE 13(12): 480-487
- Shoshani & Tassy (2005) Quaternary International 126-128: 5-20
- Shoshani et al. (2006) Brain Research Bulletin 70: 124-157
- West (2002) Physiology 17: 47-50