The author is a research enthusiast. She studied botany and zoology as major subjects in her bachelor's program.
Elephants: The Largest Existing Land Animals
Elephants are the largest existing land animals and have always fascinated people with their long trunks and unique ears. They belong to the kingdom of Animalia. They are herbivorous and eat grass, wood, fruits, and pulp. After reading this article, you will learn the following facts about elephants:
Elephants Facts and Info Covered in This Article
- Species of elephant
- The White elephant
- Elephant habitat
- Unique body features
- Reproduction and life cycle
- Importance of elephants
Species of Elephant
Zoologists classify elephants into two species:
- African elephant (Loxodonta)
- Asian elephant (Elephas Maximus)
African elephants have two subspecies. They differ from each other in size and habitat.
- The African bush elephant (Loxodonta Africana)
- The forest elephant (Loxodonta Cyclotis)
There are three subspecies of Asian elephant:
- Indian (E. m. Indicus)
- Sri Lankan (E. m. maximum)
- Sumatran (E. m. sumatranus)
Indian elephants are spread widely across the continent. Sumatran elephants are the smallest found on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, which contains many animals and plant species. Sri Lankan elephants are the largest subspecies in terms of size. But still, scientists argue that if there are enough variations, that creates a separate species.
The White Elephant
White elephants are very rare. You can find them in Thailand, Burma, and, on rare occasions, Africa. Although they are not a separate species, they differ from others because of their skin color. Their skin color is not pure white. They have a reddish-brown color, which turns pink when they are wet.
These elephants are important in their respective areas because of their distinct skin color. Whenever someone discovers a white elephant in Thailand, they present it to the ruler of the time. The more "white elephants" a ruler has, the stronger their societal position. Similarly, in Burma, they are considered a sign of good fortune.
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Elephants live in tropical and subtropical areas of Africa and Asia. Most live in forests, woodlands, and savannas, while some live in deserts and mountains. Woodland is land covered with trees, shrubs, and grass and has plenty of sunlight. They widely change their habitat to suit their needs. They used to migrate from one place to another in search of food and water. They also change their habitat because of weather changes.
African elephants live mostly in savannas and tropical forests. Savannas are full of grass and some scattered trees. The average rainfall in savannas is 20 to 50 inches each year. Some African elephants also live in deserts and mountains, and the desert elephant can travel up to 60 miles in a day in search of food.
Asian elephants' habitats include plains, deciduous forests, evergreen forests, and cultivated lands. They prefer to migrate toward watery areas in hot weather to prevent dehydration.
Unique Body Features
Elephants have a distinct feature called a "trunk," or, more technically, a "proboscis." The proboscis is an elongated nose in vertebrates. It is the fusion of the upper lip and the nose. Elephants use their trunks to carry food and water to their mouths and to catch things. Elephants use two finger-like extensions at the end of the trunk to grab food or objects. An elephant's trunk has 40,000 muscles, making it a versatile and delicate organ.
Elephants have 26 teeth: 12 molars, 12 premolars, and a set of enlarged growing teeth known as "tusks." Almost all African elephants have tusks, whereas only some male Asian elephants have tusks. Tusks are elongated incisors in elephants. They are deeply rooted, and most parts are made of dentine (a hard, bony tissue), also known as "ivory."
Elephant tusks are only one of several sets that grow throughout their lives. Elephants replace their teeth six times during their life cycle. Tusks replace milk teeth in an elephant at 6 to 12 months of age and grow almost 17 cm in a year.
Elephants have unique ears that work as a cooling system for them. The ear is 6 feet from top to bottom and 5 feet wide. The advantage of having large ears is that they can pick up sounds from a distance. The ears of African elephants are more prominent than their Asian cousins and look like the continent of Africa.
The average weight of an ear is nearly 100 pounds. Elephants don't have enough sweat glands, so they use their ears to regulate their body temperature. Their ears act like fans, and by flapping, they provide air to the rest of the body of an elephant.
Communication in Elephants
Elephants communicate through vocal calls that include roars and rumbles. These calls convey specific messages. When elephants try to save calves from danger, they make a special call. Hearing this, the rest of the elephants also come around the calves to protect them. The pitch of the sound depends on their mood.
Elephants produce low-frequency sounds that the human ear cannot hear. These soft sounds are so powerful that they can be heard from a long distance and carry the message to the elephants that are a short distance away. These low sounds are called infrasonic noises. They also express their feelings and emotions of joy and sorrow by making noises.
The Secret Language of Elephants
Non-Vocal Communication Through Vibration
Communication through vibrations means expressing the message through mechanical vibrations of the substrate. In elephants, the substrate is earth. With the help of this communication, elephants can warn each other of danger from miles away. The soft pads of their feet produce seismic vibrations that they detect through their trunk and feet.
Elephants possess various modifications suited for vibratory contact. For example, the pads of the feet contain cartilaginous nodes. Elephants' ears contain an annular muscle that helps them hear seismic signals.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
Elephants become sexually mature at 14 or 15 years of age. Sexual maturity age depends on nutrition. A female produces a single baby (rarely twins). The gestational period is 20 to 22 months long. A female with good health and habitat gives birth every three to four years. The weight of a newborn baby is usually 100 kg. The infants can stand shortly after birth. They are polygamous, meaning a male can have more than one female for mating. But it's not that easy. They have to be dominant over other males to attract more female elephants.
Musth is a condition in which a male elephant shows very aggressive behavior. This happens once a year and has a significant impact on elephant behavior. This behavior change is for hormonal reasons. In musth, testosterone levels increase up to 50 times more than normal, and some physiological changes occur in elephants.
Elephants become more dangerous and aggressive in musth. Urine draining from the legs was also observed in musth. Secretion from the temporal glands occurs, which are located midway between the ears and eyes. The musth period can last anywhere from a few weeks to months. But no one still knows the full truth of musth. Every researcher and elephant keeper has a different opinion about it.
Signs of Musth
In musth, elephants show strange behavior and become dangerous. The most common signs by which we can recognize "the musth elephants" are: alertness, spreading of ears, blowing trunk, swollen trunk base, the foreskin of the penis becoming white and greenish, and destructive behavior towards other elephants and humans.
- Further info on musth at Wildlife SOS
Differences Between African and Asian Elephants
|Features||African elephants||Asian elephants|
African elephants are bigger in size and weigh around 5,000 to 14,000 lbs.
Asian elephants are slightly smaller and weighing between 4,500 to 11,000 lbs.
African elephants have two fingers like projections at the end of their trunk.u
Asian elephants have only one.
African elephants have large ears which look like the continent of Africa.
Asian elephants have small and rounded ears.
Almost all African elephants have long tusks which grow in size with time.
Only some male Asian elephants have long tusk while females have small tusks which are not extended outside called "tushes."
African elephants have looser and more wrinkled skin.
Asian elephants have harder and less wrinkled skin.
Importance of Elephants
They Support Other Animals
Elephants are also known as ecosystem engineers. They maintain the ecosystem of their habitat, which helps other animals to thrive. In dry and hot weather, they dig the land to make watering holes from which other animals can drink water. They find and dig underground water with the help of their trunk, tusks, and feet.
They Attract Tourists
Being huge and valuable animals, they attract tourists to themselves. People always want to watch and ride on them due to their friendly behavior and unique body type.
Distribution of Seeds
Many plants and trees rely on elephants for their survival. As elephants eat seeds of plants and trees, these seeds need to pass through the digestive system of an elephant to germinate. Elephant's dung contains these seeds and spreads them from one place to another.
They play a significant role in shaping their habitat. They make pathways for other animals in the forest by grazing. They make paths for sunlight to reach the ground in the forest, which is essential for many trees and plants. Even the footprints of elephants have an advantage: when the holes of the footprint are filled with water, they provide shelter to tadpoles and other small organisms.
- Facts About African Elephants | National Geographic
- Reproduction and Life Cycle of Elephants | Britannica
- Elephant Musth Facts | Safaris Africana
- Why Elephants are Important | Save the Elephants
- Elephant Species | WWF
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 EK Jadoon
EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on August 23, 2020:
Thank you, Bill. Your words mean a lot to me.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 23, 2020:
That was a great read. Very informative! Thanks for adding to my education.
EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on August 19, 2020:
Kanwal, thanks for appreciating.
KANWAL YOUSAFZAI from Pakistan on August 17, 2020:
Well explained, i liked the article.
EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on August 15, 2020:
Alicia, thank you so much for your precious words. Honestly, I am inspired by your writing style and have learned a lot of things from your articles.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on August 15, 2020:
Thank you for sharing the facts. I think elephants are fascinating animals. I enjoy reading about them.
EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on August 15, 2020:
Thank you for your kind words, Eric. I have tried to write this article in such a way that children can also benefit from it.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 15, 2020:
A really excellent article. So interesting. My ten year old will like this also. Thank you.