J-me's Guide to Elephants

picture of an elephant

There are three species of elephant: the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), also known as the Indian elephant; and two species of African elephant, the widely known African Savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana), and the less common African forest elephant (traditionally classified as Loxodonta africana cyclotis).

The Asian elephant's natural habitat includes India, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. Elephants roam in dense tropical forests, and grassy plains near water sources.

The African Savannah elephant's natural habitat includes many parts of sub-Sahara Africa, although their range is now limited, and broken into small patches. The African forest elephant lives in the dense equatorial forests from Zaire west to Mauritania.

The most obvious difference between Asian and African elephants is their ears: African elephants have huge ears, while Asian elephants, living in cooler forest areas, have smaller ears. Asian elephants also have smoother skin, and a rounded back; the skin of African elephants is rough and wrinkled, and they have a sway back.

Among African elephants, both sexes display tusks; only the males display tusks among the Asians. African elephants are also larger, being the largest land-dwelling mammal on the planet. The largest elephant ever recorded was an African savannah elephant, who measured over 12 feet high at the shoulder, and weighed in at nine tons.

Gestation lasts between 19 and 22 months; it's normally slightly longer in Asian than African elephants. Elephants normally give birth to a single calf (baby); in rare cases they may give birth to twins. The interval between births is usually three to four years. Females continue to have offspring until around the age of fifty.

Elephants reach puberty at around fourteen years of age, although especially with males, they don't become sexually active for another several years.

Elephants live in matriarchal herds; the oldest, largest female elephant sets the pace for the groups activities. Most herds consist of adult female elephants and infant and preadolescents calves of both sexes; the males, upon reaching puberty, normally leave the herd and travel either alone or in bachelor groups.

The matriarchal herds often join with other herds, forming large groups called clans. Herds and clans are almost constantly on the move, and travel widely searching for food and water.

Elephants have poor eyesight but very good hearing, and the ability to communicate with each other over great distances using low frequency sound. In this way herds can warn each other of danger, or call for help. Herds and clans are very cooperative, and protective of each other; baby elephants are looked after by all the adult females in the herd, and when an elephant is in trouble, others in the group will surround it and try to help.

While baby elephants are able to stand and walk soon after being born (albeit a bit wobbly at first!), they have no natural instincts as to what to do with their trunks, and must be taught. It usually takes them many months before they gain enough coordination for their trunks to be of any use to them.

Elephants use their trunks for feeding, drinking, bathing, and also for pulling, lifting, etc. Elephants use their trunks much like humans use their hands. (Also, elephants do not drink through their trunks; they use them to draw up water to then pour into their mouths). An elephant's trunk has incredible strength, can weigh up to 400 pounds, and can pull a large tree down - or up by its roots.

Elephants are herbivores; their diet consists of grasses, bamboo, leaves, roots, bark, and fruit. Often soil is eaten for its mineral content.

Elephants normally have six sets of molars; as each set is worn down, the next row moves forward. This continues until the last set of molars is worn down, after which the elephant can no longer chew its food, is unable to eat, and consequently - and sadly - starves to death. About 10% of elephants have an additional seventh molar, but they are usually not as developed.

The average life span of an elephant in the wild is 60-70 years.

Although a wandering and unattended baby elephant can fall prey to lions, tigers or other large cats, the mature elephant has no natural enemy but humans.

All species of elephants are in danger of extinction.

by J-me (Dec 2002)

The Weird Bunch

Elephant Photogallery