As many of you who religiously follow this blog know, the inspiration behind all that I do now for wildlife, other than my 4-year-old incandescent introduction to The Lion King, is due to a baby elephant who touched my heart. I’ve been working with elephants since I was 16, and some have even described the elephant as my spirit animal. That said, let’s talk about why elephants are so fantastically cool.
To understand what they are now, we must understand their past. Thus it should be understood that elephants, all of which are part of the family Elephantidae are the only ones under the taxonomic order of Probiscidea, as all other family orders of Probiscidea are extinct. Most died during the end of the Glacial Period, including the recently extinct gomphotheres of Central and South America, the mastodons of North America, stegodonts of Asia, the infamous mammoths, and several dwarf elephants found on Mediterranean islands (i.e. Cyprus, Crete, Sicily, Malta, Cyclades Islands, and Docdecanese Islands) and even the Channel Islands of California.
The oldest known proboscidean is Eritherium, followed later by Phosphatherium (55 mya) and was the size of a fox! Mind you: only later proboscideans are characterized by their very distinguishable trusks and long muscular trunks (proboscis).
Now while it is obvious one point, I still need to make it: elephants are the largest living land mammals! Coinciding with this remarkable fact, they also have the largest brains of the animal kingdom, and trust me: they are brilliant (more on that in another blog post)!
There are two subspecies of elephant: Asian and African, though the African elephant is divided into Savanna Elephant and Forest Elephant. For differences between the two, here’s a great link: http://www.upali.ch/differences_en.html
Elephants are herbivores- so, no, they will not eat you. This does NOT mean that they will not kill you to protect themselves, their territory, or their babies. (Note to yourself: NEVER mess with a momma elephant unless you feel like having her wrap you up in her trunk and having her bash your brains out, which I think is far worse than being stabbed to death by tusks, but as they say: pick your poison).
Because elephants are giant yet herbivorous, causing them to eat nutrient poor, fibrous dense material such as grasses, leaves, fruits, and bamboo (for Asian elephants), their intake is significant. They digest ~40% of what they eat, needing ~250 kg of green leaves & 200 L of water/day, the amount varying on the weight, physiologic state, and sex of the animal. (Cool fact: they can suck up to 14 litres of water in one gulp through their trunk). Adults typically eat 1.0% – 1.5% of their body weight, but this information is based on studies done on captive elephants where mostly dry matter food were provided, so this may be different in the wild.
Elephants use their incredibly “elongated upper lip”, which we call a trunk or proboscis, to reach food on the ground without bending their neck or reach hard-to-reach food on high branches. The trunk is extremely well innervated, allowing it to be as precise as our fingers in seeking out specific pieces of grass, for example, that an elephant wishes to eat. They can use their trunks also for greeting, caressing one another, threatening, squirting water around in play or in order to cool themselves down, and to amplify their vocalizations. Trunks actually also serve as a snorkel! In fact, elephant embryos by days 85-90 can be seen to have a little trunk forming. (Note that elephants gestate for ~660 days)!
Elephant jaws are unique compared to those of other herbivores, such as our domestic equids (horses) and bovids (oxen). Elephants do not possess canines or lower incisors, while their upper incisors are modified into tusks (except in female Asian elephants). There exists a large “grinding tooth” on each side of the mandible and maxilla.
Elephant tusks, which, again, are nothing more than overgrown upper incisors, begin to grow at 2 years and continue to gro until 60! Elephant tusks are extremely unique! Yes, yes, they are of ivory, which is composed of unique mix of dentine and calcium salts that are arranged in a regular diamond pattern that isn’t seen in any other tusked animal. They use their tusks for defense, display (very attractive, wouldn’t you say?), ripping bark off trees, and digging.
Food in the elephant courses a fairly “standard” digestive path: esophagus, simple stomach, duodenum, jejunum, ileum, cecum, colon, rectum, and anus. But what is unique about the elephant is that their food is broken down with a great deal of help from bacteria and protozoa (similar to those found in the rumen of bovids, though in a pattern of hindgut digestion similar to horses, with the cecum playing a dominant role, though not as crazy as in the horse).
The elephant brain weights 4.67 kg (10.3 lb) in females and 5.0 kg (11 lb) in males. Their temporal lobe is even more convoluted than those of humans. Larger cerebrums have been correlated with a greater intellectual capacity. Thus it is thought that the large size is needed to help elephants differentiate one another, form memories (especially of the behavior of other elephants), store information such as of droughts, dangerous locations and circumstances, and where to find appropriate places to eat.
One of the most endearing parts of the elephant, in my opinion, are their darling ears. Besides their communicative role between one another, their large surface area acts to prevent over-heating, and their richly supplied blood vessel distribution allows their blood to be cooled, as wind grazes over their ears. In fact, their blood vessels on the medial (inner) side of the ear will protrude above the skin and dilate when temperatures are high but not when they are normal.
Due to their enormous size, elephants support their bodies on “tree-trunk-like” legs with very thick and heavy long bones using as stance known as “graviportal”. While horses are known as digitigrade, with their “heel” off the ground as they stand on just one single phalanx, elephants are semidigitigrade. (Humans and bears, for another comparison, are completely plantigrade with our heels fully on the ground).
Got any questions? Send ‘em over!
More elephant love to come!