Elephant African and Asian Elephants

African Elephant with zebras

Photo: African Elephant with zebras

The elephant is the largest land animal in the world. A male elephant can grow to 3m (10ft) in height and weigh as much as 6,000kgs (13,225 lbs). That is roughly the weight of 90 humans.

There are two main types of elephants: African Elephants or Asian Elephants. African elephants are larger, have bigger ears and concave backs (the middle of the spine curves downward). They also have a sloping forehead. Asian elephants have smaller ears, convex backs (the middle of the spine curves upward or is almost flat), and straighter foreheads with two bumps on either side.

While elephants are usually referred to as either African Elephants and Asian Elephants; there are actually three species of elephants; African bush elephant, African forest elephant and Asian Elephant.

The African bush elephant and African forest elephant are similar in appearance but vary in size and habitat and are found in sub-Saharan Africa. The Asian Elephant has three sub-species; the Indian, Sumatran, and Sri Lankan elephants, and they live in south and south-eastern Asia.

Elephant Description What is An Elephant?

Elephant walking

Photo: African Elephant

Photo: Asian Elephant

All elephants are massive, greyish to brown in colour, have a long trunk, large flappy ears, huge pillar-like legs, and tough skin covered in sparse and coarse hair. Most but not all elephants have ivory tusks. Asian elephants lose some skin pigment as they age, causing large pink blotches on their skin, most often on their trunk, ears and head. African elephants have a lifespan of up to 70 years, and Asian elephants live for about 48 years.

Elephant's Size

The African bush elephant is the largest elephant of them all. A fully grown male can stand at 3.2m (10 ft) and weigh as much as 6,000kg (13,225 lbs). The African forest elephant can grow to 2.4 m (7 ft 10 in) and weighs up to 4,000kg (8,880lbs). The Asian elephant is usually about 2.8m (9 ft) tall and weighs 4,000kg (8,800lbs).

Elephant's Trunk

Photo: African Elephant with zebras in background

The elephant's trunk hangs from the front of its face. It is made up of an elongation of its nose and the upper lip of its mouth. A trunk can grow 2-3m (6-8ft) long, and functions as its nose and its hand. The elephant uses its trunk for smelling, touching, breathing, trumpeting, drinking, feeding, producing sounds, dusting, grasping and fighting.

There are no bones or joints in its trunk. Instead, the trunk has eight pairs of strong, flexible muscles.  An elephant's nostrils are located at the tip of its trunk. An African elephant has two finger-like appendages at the end of its trunk. By comparison, the Asian elephant has only one, with a pad on the opposite side. These appendages are used like nimble fingers to grab and manipulate small objects. The African elephant grasps an object by pinching its two appendages together. An Asian elephant, on the other hand, curls the tip of its trunk around an item and picks it up. It is claimed that an elephant can pick up something as small as a peanut, crush open the shell and extract the kernel with these nose-fingers. The elephant sniffs the air with its trunk for information on the weather, food, predators, etc. It also collects dust or grass to spray onto itself to protect against insect bites and the sun. An adult male elephant can lift up to 250kg (55lbs) with its trunk. It even uses its trunk as a snorkel when swimming. As you can see, the trunk is indeed a very versatile part of the elephant's anatomy.

Contrary to popular belief, the trunk is not used as a straw. Instead, the trunk is used to suck up water and store it temporarily while the animal brings its trunk around and squirts the water into its mouth. This may be why this structure is called a trunk, as in "storage" trunk. The elephant can suck up nearly 8 litres (2 gal) of water into its trunk.

Are Elephants Scared of Mice?

We have all seen those cartoons of an elephant trembling at the sight of a tiny little mouse. The prevalent theory is that the elephant is afraid of mice crawling up the inside of its trunk. This is false. An elephant is not scared of a mouse. If a mouse were to crawl up an elephant's trunk, the elephant could easily sneeze and blow the mouse out of its trunk at speeds over 100 mph.

But! Did you know, elephants hate ants? This is because ants can climb inside their sensitive trunks and bite. Elephants dislike ants so much that they avoid acacia trees that harbour ants. Remove the ants, and the elephant will happily munch on the tree.

Elephant’s Tusks

An elephant's tusks are extensions of its two front incisor teeth. They are permanent, and grow throughout its life. An elephant's task can grow to 3m (10ft) and weigh up to 67kg (147lbs). Both male and female African elephants usually grow tusks. However, in Asian elephants, it is predominately the male that grows tasks.

Tusks serve many purposes, including ripping the bark off trees, digging up plants, protecting the elephant's trunk, lifting and moving objects, and as a weapon. During times of drought, elephants may even use their tusks as spades to dig holes in dried-up riverbeds and lakes in search of underground water.

Elephant's Teeth

Photo: Elephant's upper jaw molar teeth visible

An elephant has four molar teeth at any given time. A single, large molar tooth occupies each side of its upper and lower jaws. The animal’s rough diet constantly wears down these molar teeth. So, new ones grow from the rear of the animal’s mouth and move forward to replace the worn teeth. The last molars appear when the elephant is about 30 years old and can measure 40cm (16in) and weigh 5 kg (11lbs). When these last sets of molars wear down, if the elephant is still alive, it will die of starvation because it has no teeth to chew its food with.

Both African and Asian elephants will grow a total 26 teeth in their lifetimes.

Elephant's Ears

Photo: Elephant with ears extended

African elephants have ears as large as 2m (6ft) high and 1.5m (5ft) wide. Asian elephants have much smaller ears.

The elephant doesn't have many sweat glands. So the skin on its ears is paper-thin and rich in blood vessels, helping to cool the animal by radiating its body heat through its ears. The elephant may also fan its ears to keep its body cool.

The different ear sizes have evolved to meet the animal's needs in its specific environment. For example, the African elephant lives in hot, dry climates, mainly in the open savannah. Its oversized ears with a larger surface area are vital to prevent the animal from overheating. Asian elephants, on the other hand, live in cooler, more humid climates and the large surface area of their body together, to a lesser extent, with its small ears moderate its body temperature sufficiently.

The elephant's large ears also enable them to detect sounds as low as 14hz and as high as 12,000hz (Humans can hear in the range 20hz to 20,000hz). Elephants frequently use infrasonic sounds. These low-frequency sounds can travel over 10km (6 miles) and allow these animals to communicate with each other. Their excellent hearing even allow them to detect sounds up-to 300km (185 miles) away.

When an elephant wishes to warn or intimidate an adversary, it will spread its ears wide open and flap them threateningly.

Elephant's Skin

Photo: Elephant dusting itself

An elephant has thick folded, wrinkly skin up to 3.8cm (1.5in) thick. The Asian elephant has smoother, thinner skin than the African elephant. The folds and wrinkles of an elephant's skin increase its overall surface area and help retain moisture and cool the animal. This is vital because the elephant has virtually no sweat glands. The elephant doesn't have fur, it has course hair instead.

An elephant's skin, while extremely tough, is also very sensitive. It is so sensitive that it can feel an insect landing on its body. For these reasons, an elephant protects its skin from sunburn and insect bites by taking regular mud baths and spraying its body with dust.

Elephant's Legs & Feet

Photo: Elephants running

An elephant has straight, pillar-like legs positioned almost vertically under its body to support its great bulk and weight. Its back legs are slightly shorter than its front legs, but its high shoulders give the illusion that its front legs are longer. An elephant walks on its toes. Its feet have thick, spongy pads of fatty, fibrous tissue with ribbed soles that act as shock-absorbers. These padded feet are well suited for the long daily treks elephants make each day. Their legs and feet are well suited for this lifestyle.

An elephant walks at about 7kph (4.5mph), and it can run at 24 kmh (15mph). Actually, technically speaking, an elephant doesn't run—it power walks.

The elephant has five conventional toes point forwards, but hidden from view inside its foot is a sixth toe pointing backwards into its heal pad. This extra backwards-facing toe provided additional support to hold up its bulk. An elephant has five toes on each foot. The Asian elephant and African forest elephant have five toenails on the front feet and only four on the back feet. The African bush elephant has four toenails on each front foot and only three per rear foot.

Elephants can hear with their feet. They can sense low-frequency underground vibrations from up to 20 miles away.

Is an Elephant Left or Right Handed? An Elephant's Preference for One Side or Other

Photo: Elephant's shorter task

Elephants have a preference for using one tusk over another. That is, they are left or right-handed. We can identify an elephant’s handedness by the wear and tear of the preferred task. It is usually shorter and more worn down because it is used more frequently. Most elephants prefer their right tusks. They also have a strong left or right side preference in using their trunks.

Elephant Sounds What Does an Elephant Sound Like?

Elephants produce two types of sounds with their trunks. They do this by passing air through their trunks and controlling this airflow with their nostrils. These sounds include trumpeting, growls, snorts, roars, barks and cries.

Elephants also produce low-frequency (5–24hz) infrasonic sounds in a voice-box (larynx) similar in sound to a purring cat. These low-frequency sounds travel through the air as well as through the ground. An elephant can detect these sounds with its ears, but also, it can sense these sounds travelling long distances underground as seismic waves with its feet.

Elephants also produce other sounds by beating their trunks against their tusks,  trees, or on the ground.

Listen to Some Elephant Sounds

Elephant Habitat & Distribution Where Do Elephants Live?

GREEN = African Elephant RED = Asian Elephant

Photo: Elephant Distribution Map

African bush elephants live in habitats ranging from open savannah to desert in Sub-Saharan Africa at elevations ranging from sea-level up to 2500 meters. The largest populations are in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Zambia, and South Africa. African bush elephants migrate between habitats, ranging from subtropical and temperate forests to wetlands, grasslands and woodlands, and agricultural land from sea level to mountain slopes.

African forest elephants inhabit dense rainforests from sea-level up-to an elevation of 2500 meters. They live in west and central Africa. They are most numerous in Gabon and the Republic of Congo. Smaller populations also exist in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia, and Ghana.

Asian elephants are predominately forest animals. They live on the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia at elevations ranging from sea-level up-to 3,000 meters. Their preferred habitats are tropical forests, evergreen and semi-evergreen forests, wet and dry deciduous forests, prickly forests, intermittent open grassy plains with shade forests close by to escape from the sun. They also venture into cultivating lands which bring them into conflict with human farmers. The Sri Lankan elephant lives only in Sri Lanka, and the Sumatran elephant is only found on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia.

Elephants are not territorial but prefer moving around in their preferred home range, which can vary from 15 to 500 square kilometres (6 to 500 miles) depending on the quantity and quality of food available. On a daily basis, elephants walk 4-12km (2-7.5 miles) in search of food. This can be extended to upwards of 27km (17 miles) a day during seasonal migrations and during times of drought. Both African and Asian elephants generally follow the same migratory paths annually.

Elephant Diet What Elephants Eat

Photo: Elephant reaching higher branches for food

Elephants are herbivores that eat grasses, tree bark, roots, leaves, plants, fruit and twigs. They are also known to raid farm crops such as bananas, rice, and sugarcane, bringing them into conflict with farmers. An elephant can eat between 149-169 kg (330-375 lb) of vegetation daily. It eats for sixteen to eighteen hours a day. That’s nearly 80% of its day feeding. The elephant uses its trunk to grasp and transfer its food to its mouth. Tusks are used to carve into the trunks of trees to tear off strips of bark which it then transfers to its mouth using its trunk. Elephants also mine for minerals and salts by digging up the ground with their tusks.

Elephants Do Lots of Poop

Elephants eat up to 169 kg (375 lb) of food each day, and their digestive system is only about 50% efficient. This means that lots and lots of poop come out each day—about 113kgs (250lbs) of it. An elephant defecates 12-15 times a day.

An elephant requires a large quantity of water. It consumes 68 to 100 litres (18 to 26 gal) of water daily. An adult male can drink 212 litres (55 gal) of water in under five minutes.

Elephants can rear up onto their hind legs and extend their trunk to reach vegetation as high as 5.7 m (19 ft).

Elephant Predators & Treats What Kills Elephants?

Elephant's Natural Predators

Photo: Herd of Elephants attacking a pride of lions

Elephants have no natural predators because of their sheer size, strength, and herd social behaviour. Even lions keep away.

Elephants have very strong herd coercion and coordination in the face of a threat. They will herd together, with the most robust animals forming an outward-facing circle around the more vulnerable. Few predators dare challenge such a formidable line of defence.

However, some young, sick, or ailing animals occasionally fall prey to lions, tigers, hyenas, and crocodiles.

Elephant's Most Dangerous Predator are Humans!

Photo: What a crime! Killed only for its ivory tusks

The most dangerous predator of the elephant is humans. As many as 30,000 elephants are killed each year for their ivory.

We killed off millions of these majestic elephants and brought them to near extinction. For what? For ivory to decorate our bodies and for ornaments!

Elephant Population

There are only half a million (500,000) wild elephants left in the world today. Approximately 415,000 are wild African elephants, and less than 45,000 are wild Asian elephants. An additional 15,000 Asian elephants survive in human care as work animals and in zoos and sanctuaries. 

Are Elephants Endangered?

Photo: Ivory seized by the US government

Elephants face extinction. The primary reason elephants are endangered is pouching and habitat loss caused by humans. Humans killed off nearly 90% of African elephants for their ivory tusks in the last 100 years.

African and Asian elephants are listed as endangered species. They are threatened by significant habitat loss and poaching.

21 Interesting Elephant Facts

  1. The African elephant has a more extendible trunk, but the Asian elephant's trunk is more dexterous.
  2. The elephant is sometimes referred to as a " pachyderm". This word is derived from the Latin words for “thick” (“pachy”) and “skin” (“derm”) and means, quite literally, “thick-skin.”
  3. But, it is paper-thin thin in places, such has behind its ears.
  4. An elephant has no sweat glands—just a few around its toenails.
  5. Elephants have the largest brains of all land animals. That is why they are so clever and have incredible memory.
  6. Elephant carry grudges.
  7. Elephants use their trunk greet each other. They also hug with their trunks.
  8. The African forest elephant was recognised as a separate species only in 2000.
  9. Elephants do not have sweat glands, except for just above the toenails.
  10. Elephants don't have hooves or paws like many other animals. Instead, they have flat padded feet.
  11. Elephants one of the few animals that can recognize themselves in a mirror.
  12. Some African elephants live in the hot Sahel Desert of Mali, in Africa.
  13. Elephants are herbivorous. They only eat plant matter.
  14. An elephant's tasks grow throughout its life.
  15. Tusks are made of ivory, an incredibly dense form of bone.
  16. While the elephant is the largest land animal, the Antarctic blue whale is 33 times larger than an elephant.
  17. Elephants can suck water into their trunks at speeds of up to 540kmh (335mph).
  18. Elephants have course hair all over their bodies. They don’t have fur.
  19. Elephants have eyelashes.
  20. Elephants can swim underwater. They use their trunk as a snorkel and breath through it.
  21. Elephant cannot jump. They weigh too much, have no reason to, and their legs aren't designed for jumping.