||Tembo or ndovu
||Up to 11 feet
||31/2 - 61/2
tons (7,000 13,200 lb)
||60 to 70 years
||Dense forest to open
||About 22 months
The African elephant and the Asian elephant are the only two
surviving species of what was in prehistoric times a diverse
and populous group of large mammals. Fossil records suggest
that the elephant has some unlikely distant relatives, namely
the small, rodentlike hyrax and the ungainly aquatic dugong.
They all are thought to have evolved from a common stock
related to ungulates. In East Africa many well-preserved
fossil remains of earlier elephants have aided scientists in
dating the archaeological sites of prehistoric man.
The African elephant is the largest living land
mammal, one of the most impressive animals on earth.
Of all its specialized features, the muscular trunk is the
most remarkable it serves as a nose, a hand, an extra foot, a
signaling device and a tool for gathering food, siphoning water,
dusting, digging and a variety of other functions. Not only does
the long trunk permit the elephant to reach as high as 23 feet,
but it can also perform movements as delicate as picking berries
or caressing a companion. It is capable, too, of powerful
twisting and coiling movements used for tearing down trees or
fighting. The trunk of the African elephant has two finger-like
structures at its tip, as opposed to just one on the Asian
elephant (Elephas maximus).
The tusks, another remarkable feature, are greatly elongated
incisors (elephants have no canine teeth); about one-third of
their total length lies hidden inside the skull. The largest
tusk ever recorded weighed 214 pounds and was 138 inches long.
Tusks of this size are not found on elephants in Africa today,
as over the years hunters and poachers have taken animals with
the largest tusks. Because tusk size is an inherited
characteristic, it is rare to find one now that would weigh more
than 100 pounds.
Both male and female African elephants have tusks, although
only males in the Asiatic species have them. Tusks grow for most
of an elephant's lifetime and are an indicator of age. Elephants
are "right- or left-tusked," using the favored tusk more often
as a tool, thus, shortening it from constant wear. Tusks will
differ in size, shape and direction; researchers use them (and
the elephant's ears) to identify individuals.
Although the elephant's remaining teeth do not attract the
ivory poacher, they are nonetheless interesting and ultimately
determine the natural life span of the elephant. The cheek teeth
erupt in sequence from front to rear (12 on each side, six upper
and six lower), but with only a single tooth or one and a part
of another, being functional in each half of each jaw at one
time. As a tooth becomes badly worn, it is pushed out and
replaced by the next tooth growing behind. These large, oblong
teeth have a series of cross ridges across the surface. The last
molar, which erupts at about 25 years, has the greatest number
of ridges but must also serve the elephant for the rest of its
life. When it has worn down, the elephant can no longer chew
food properly; malnutrition sets in, hastening the elephant's
death, usually between 60 and 70 years of age.
The African elephant's ears are over twice as large as the
Asian elephant's and have a different shape, often described as
similar to a map of Africa. The nicks, tears and scars as well
as different vein patterns on the ears help distinguish between
individuals. Elephants use their ears to display, signal or warn
when alarmed or angry, they spread the ears, bringing them
forward and fully extending them. The ears also control body
temperature. By flapping the ears on hot days, the blood
circulates in the ear's numerous veins; the blood returns to the
head and body about 9 F cooler.
The sole of the elephant's foot is covered with a thick,
cushionlike padding that helps sustain weight, prevents slipping
and deadens sound. When they need to, elephants can walk almost
silently. An elephant usually has five hoofed toes on each
forefoot and four on each hind foot. When it walks, the legs on
one side of the body move forward in unison.
Sometimes it is difficult for the layman to distinguish
between male and female elephants as the male has no scrotum
(the testes are internal), and both the male and the female have
loose folds of skin between the hind legs. Unlike other
herbivores, the female has her two teats on her chest between
her front legs. As a rule, males are larger than females and
have larger tusks, but females can usually be identified by
their pronounced foreheads.
Elephants can live in nearly any habitat that has adequate
quantities of food and water. Their ideal habitat consists of
plentiful grass and browse.
Elephants are generally gregarious and form small
family groups consisting of an older matriarch and three or four
offspring, along with their young. It was once thought that
family groups were led by old bull elephants, but these males
are most often solitary. The female family groups are often
visited by mature males checking for females in estrus. Several
interrelated family groups may inhabit an area and know each
other well. When they meet at watering holes and feeding places,
they greet each other affectionately.
Females mature at about 11 years and stay in the group, while
the males, which mature between 12 and 15, are usually expelled
from the maternal herd. Even though these young males are
sexually mature, they do not breed until they are in their mid-
or late 20s (or even older) and have moved up in the social
hierarchy. Mature male elephants in peak condition experience an
annual period of heightened sexual and aggressive activity
called musth. During this period, which may last a week or even
up to three to four months, the male produces secretions from
swollen temporal glands, continuously dribbles a trail of
strong-smelling urine and makes frequent mating calls. Females
are attracted to these males and prefer to mate with them rather
than with males not in musth.
Smell is the most highly developed sense, but sound deep
growling or rumbling noises is the principle means of
communication. Some researchers think that each individual has
its signature growl by which it can be distinguished. Sometimes
elephants communicate with an ear-splitting blast when in danger
or alarmed, causing others to form a protective circle around
the younger members of the family group. Elephants make
low-frequency calls, many of which, though loud, are too low for
humans to hear. These sounds allow elephants to communicate with
one another at distances of five or six miles.
An elephant's day is spent eating (about 16 hours), drinking,
bathing, dusting, wallowing, playing and resting (about three
to five hours). As an elephant only digests some 40 percent of
what it eats, it needs tremendous amounts of vegetation (approximately
5 percent of its body weight per day) and about 30 to 50
gallons of water. A young elephant must learn how to draw
water up into its trunk and then pour it into its mouth.
Elephants eat an extremely varied vegetarian diet, including
grass, leaves, twigs, bark, fruit and seed pods. The fibrous
content of their food and the great quantities consumed makes
for large volumes of dung.
Caring for the Young
Usually only one calf is born to a pregnant female. An
orphaned calf will usually be adopted by one of the family's
lactating females or suckled by various females. Elephants are
very attentive mothers, and because most elephant behavior has
to be learned, they keep their offspring with them for many
years. Tusks erupt at 16 months but do not show externally
until 30 months. The calf suckles with its mouth (the trunk is
held over its head); when its tusks are 5 or 6 inches long,
they begin to disturb the mother and she weans it. Once weaned
usually at age 4 or 5, the calf still remains in the maternal
Elephants once were common throughout Africa, even in northern
Africa as late as Roman times. They have since disappeared
from that area due to overhunting and the spread of the desert.
Even though they are remarkably adaptable creatures, living in
habitats ranging from lush rain forest to semidesert, there
has been much speculation about their future. Surviving
populations are pressured by poachers who slaughter elephants
for their tusks and by rapidly increasing human settlements,
which restrict elephants' movements and reduce the size of
their habitat. Today it would be difficult for elephants to
survive for long periods of time outside protected parks and
reserves. But confining them also causes problems without
access any longer to other areas, they may harm their own
habitat by overfeeding and overuse. Sometimes they go out of
protected areas and raid nearby farms.
Did you know?
- The elephant is distinguished by its high level of intelligence, interesting
behavior, methods of communication and complex social structure.
- Elephants seem to be fascinated with the tusks and bones of dead elephants,
fondling and examining them. The myth that they carry them to secret "elephant
burial grounds," however, has no factual base.
- Elephants are very social, frequently touching and caressing one another and
entwining their trunks.
- Elephants demonstrate concern for members of their families they take care
of weak or injured members and appear to grieve over a dead companion.