The word 'elephant' comes from the Greek word eléfas, meaning 'ivory'. Elephants are the largest terrestrial animals on earth, measuring about 10-13 feet in height and 11,000-15,400 pounds in weight. They also have the largest brains. But, you will be surprised to know that these massive animals are quite gentle and have no natural enemies. As far as evolution of elephants are concerned, they evolved in the Pleistocene epoch, i.e. some 2 millions to 10,000 years ago.
Basic Facts about Elephants
They belong to the family Elephantidae, which comprises three species - the Forest elephant, the Savannah elephant and the Asian elephant. The Forest elephant and the Savannah elephant are commonly known as the African elephant (Loxodonta africana), whereas the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) is known as the Indian elephant. All of them share some characteristic attributes, which are very interesting to learn about. The following is a brief explanation about elephant facts and information.
Trunk or Proboscis
The most characteristic feature of elephants is their elongated trunk (or proboscis), which is a fusion of nose and upper lip. Sometimes the elephant's trunk is described as the longest nose (up to 8 feet). It has been found out that an elephant trunk has more than 40,000 muscles. The trunk is used for various purposes such as feeding, drinking, defending, interaction with others, and also as a sensory organ.
Tusk or Ivory
Tusk, which is another extraordinary feature of an elephant, is nothing but the second upper incisor that grows continuously. Tusks of an African elephant can grow up to 10 feet long and can weigh up to 90 kilograms, whereas tusks of an Asian elephant vary according to gender - female shows short or no tusk while the male has lean tusks, which may be of 10 feet long and around 40 kilograms weight.
Skin and Ears
Skin of elephant is about 2.5 cm (1 inch) thick and covered with light hair. The color of hair vary from gray to brown, and brown color is usually due to wallowing in dust or mud. Elephants usually wallow in mud to generate heat and also to protect from harmful rays and insects. The African elephants use their large ears to provide ventilation and also, in maintaining temperature during hot summer months.
Like other herbivorous animals, the teeth of elephants are adapted in such a way that they can cut and grind vegetation properly. An interesting phenomenon about these large mammals is their cycle of tooth rotation. An elephant can have 28 teeth in its entire life, which are 2 milk precursors of the tusk, 2 second upper incisor teeth (i.e. tusks), 12 premolar teeth and 12 molar teeth.
Diet and Feeding Habit
Elephants are herbivores and eat about 5 percent of their body weight. They engage nearly 16-18 hours a day in eating, however only 40 percent of the ingested food gets digested. The diet of elephants is highly diverse, and includes types of plants and their parts. They prefer feeding on grasses, leaves, soft barks and fruits. On an average, elephants drink about 30-50 gallons of water.
Adult female elephant is called 'cow' and adult male elephant is called 'bull'. The sexual features are not so distinct for both males and females, and are often confused during identification. Male possesses internal testes, which can't be seen and female possesses two teats between her front legs. Usually females are identified by their pronounced forehead, which is not so in case of male elephants.
Sexual Maturity and Courting
Females attain sexual maturity at about 11 years of age and stay in herd with other older females, whereas males mature between 12 to 15 years of age and stay in herd with other males. A male elephant mates with a female elephant at around 20 years of age. Before mating, the male secretes a strong-smelling urine, which attracts compatible females. Sometimes, they communicate with a rumbling sound for mating.
Long Gestation Period
Are you aware about the gestation period of elephant? Well, it is 22 months, which is the longest of all existing land animals. One calf is born at a time (very rarely twins, in about 1 percent cases). The time interval between two births may be up to 4 years, or at times, it is as short as 2 ½ years. As per findings, a female elephant remains fertile till 50 years of age. However, long conception period contributes to slow population growth.
The Young Calf
Immediately after birth, a young elephant or calf is nearly blind. It uses its trunk to explore its surroundings and relies on elders of that certain group. The calf weighs about 100-120 kilograms and is about 2.5 feet tall. It suckles for 2 years, but continues to live with its mother for many years. However, it is the whole herd that take care of young calves and attend them whenever needed.
African and Asian Elephant
African elephants are much bigger in size, possess two finger-like projections in their trunk, have flat forehead, large ears and tusks. In comparison to the African elephants, Asian elephants are smaller in size, possess only one finger-like projection in their trunk, have two bumps on their forehead and have smaller ears and tusks. This is how, you can differentiate an African elephant from an Asian elephant.
Importance in Culture
Elephants have a strong association with many cultures. In the Asian culture, they represent a symbol of 'wisdom', especially for their memory and intelligence. They are regarded as a very social, emotional and intelligent group. The entire herd takes care of the calves and protects them from dangers. Often, they laugh and cry to show emotions. They even grieve, when any member of their group dies.
Lifespan of Elephants
An elephant may live as long as 60-70 years. However, the oldest recorded elephant is 82 years. In spite of their long lifespan, calmness and non-disturbing character, it is very unfortunate to say that these massive land animals are on the verge of extinction. Both the African and Asian elephants are included in the endangered species list because of their declining population.
Quick Facts about Elephants
- According to evolutionary history, the mammoth (an extinct elephant species) is more closely related to Asian elephant species.
- Calves are often spotted sucking their proboscis. Animal researchers are of the opinion that the young ones do it for comfort.
- For elephants, the speed of walking averages about 4 mph (miles per hour). And these mammals have the ability to swim for longer distances.
- The long proboscis helps an elephant while swimming. Yes, it serves the same function as a snorkel and assists in breathing.
- Finger like tip in the elephant's proboscis is used for removing dust from the face, and for grasping small food items and objects.
- Upward pointing of the trunk and moving it from side to side is done for smelling. The eyes of elephants are exceptionally small, and eyesight is very poor.
- How do elephants hear? Of course, through their large ears. But, it is the feet that help in detecting infrasound and underground vibrations sent by other elephants.
- Elephants, despite their size, can walk smoothly and silently. This is because of the soft padding or cushion that covers the sole of their feet.
- Just like an individual is left or right-handed, an elephant may be either right-tusked or left-tusked, based on its preference.
- The extra long second upper incisor or tusk is one of the hereditary characters in elephants. Tusks are mainly used as weapons.
- These tusks keep on growing or increasing their length throughout the elephant's life. No wonder, they grow up to 10 feet.
The decrease in population of elephants is mainly because of habitat loss and human poaching for ivory and flesh. Under Wildlife Conservation, the 'African Elephant Conservation Act of 1989' and the 'Asian Elephant Conservation Act of 1997' have been passed in order to conserve the natural habitats and protect them. Strict laws have been enforced to stop trading of elephants and collecting ivory.