Elephants belong to the family Elephantidae. They are the
largest land animals in the world. They have the biggest brain (12 pounds),
the thickest skin (1 inch) and the longest nose (their trunk is about 8
feet). Their waistline is about 16 feet.
Elephants belong to the order of Proboscidae, named for
their trunks. Around 1 million years ago there were 11 species of
proboscidean. Soon most of these species disappeared and only 3
survived: the mammoth (which became extinct 3,000-4,000 years ago) and
the African and Asian elephants.
The African Elephant species is divided into two
subspecies: the forest and the savannah. The forest elephant is smaller,
has downward-pointed tusks, and smaller, rounder ears. The savannah
elephant is larger and more widespread.
African elephants weigh up to 14,000 pounds. They have
big ears, two-fingered trunks, concave backs, flat foreheads and large
tusks. There are about 420,000 African elephants spread out over
37 African countries. They are native to a wide variety of habitats
including open savannas and dense forests.
Asian elephants weigh up to 11,000 pounds. They have
small ears, one-fingered trunks, convex backs, two bumps on their
forehead and small tusks. There are about 35,000 Asian elephants spread
out over 12 southeast Asian countries, including India. They live in
large blocks of forest near water sources and grasslands.
Elephants have very versatile trunks, which are unique among
living mammals. Their trunks are a combination of the upper lip and nose.
They can use it to both manipulate tiny objects and tear down huge tree
limbs. They also use their trunks to touch and greet other elephants. Female
elephants frequently touch their babies. Elephants are able to draw up four
gallons of water into their trunks before squirting it into their mouth to
drink. They also use their trunks to spray water and dirt over their body in
order to protect their skin from insect bites and sun exposure. When
elephants sense danger, they will raise their trunks to smell any threat.
They even use their trunks as snorkels when crossing deep rivers or lakes.
Elephants have a pair of upper tusks extending on either
side of the trunk. Their tusks are always growing and can grow to be
nine feet long. Most Asian female elephants don't grow tusks. Tusks
consist of cartilaginous material and calcium salts and are the
equivalent of incisor teeth. Elephants use their tusks for removing
bark, digging for roots and as weapons.
Elephants have six large molars in each half of the
upper and lower jaws. They use these teeth for grinding vegetation. They
only use one at a time. When a tooth is worn out or broken, elephants
will move their teeth forward and push it out. When the last molar moves
forward, it must last the rest of the elephant's life. This usually
happens around the age of 30. If this last molar doesn't last, the
elephant won't be able to chew effectively and may starve.
Elephants use their large, soft and sensitive ears to cool
off. The elephants' surface area is small compared to their mass, making it
difficult to release body heat. Flapping their ears will cool the blood
flowing through them, helping to regulate their body temperature. You can
identify elephants by their ears which are unique.
Elephants walk on their toes. The sole of each foot is
made of a tough and fatty piece of tissue which acts as a shock absorber
and helps elephants move silently. Their toes are buried inside the
flesh of the foot and not all toes have toenails. African elephants have
four toenails on the front feet and three on the back. Asian elephants
have five on the front and four on the back.
Elephants are herbivores. They eat grasses, tree
foliage, bark, bamboo, shrubs, roots and fruit. They also eat soil for
its mineral content. They disperse undigested plant seeds through their
dung, helping to cultivate plants. Full-grown African elephants will eat
about 6 to 8 percent of their body weight in vegetation each day. They
spend an average of 18 hours per day feeding. Asian elephants require
less food because the food in their habitat is more diverse and of
higher quality. Elephants can drink 67 gallons of water a day. They will
dig for water during a drought.
The life span of an elephant is about 50-70 years.
Females and young males live in herds of about ten related adults
and their offspring. The oldest and largest female, the matriarch
leads the herd. She knows best where to find food and how to avoid
danger. Males will leave the herds around
their 13th year, and travel alone or in bachelor groups. Elephants
travel around a lot in search of food.
Elephants communicate with body language and a variety of
low-frequency sounds - trumpets, rumbles, squeaks, squeals and snorts.
Their sounds can travel a mile or more. Some of their sounds are too
low for humans to hear.
Female elephants begin reproducing at 11 years and continue
through their fifties, giving birth to one calf every five years.
Older and larger males dominate the breeding, winning the acceptance
of females in heat. After a 22 month pregnancy, the female gives birth to a single calf which weighs more
than 200 pounds and nurses for as long as four years. Baby elephants grow
up surrounded by family members who help care for them. They sometimes
suck on their trunks, the way human babies suck on their thumbs. They
have milk tusks that fall out when they are about one year old.