Elephants

African Elephant  Loxodonta africana

African Elephants are the Largest Living Land Mammal

Elephants are well adapted to various ecosystems and can survive in forest, bush or savannah.

About Elephants

Size

African elephants are the largest living land mammal; adult males can weigh up to 16,000 pounds and may be twice the weight of an adult female, which average 8,000 to 9,000 pounds. The head and body length, including trunk, is 19-24 feet and the tail is 4 feet long.  At the shoulder, which is the highest point on the African elephant’s body, they can reach between 8 and 13 feet tall. Elephants continue to grow throughout their lives, but growth slows considerably by the early 30s.

Description

Brownish gray skin has deep folds and may be one inch thick in places, but is sensitive to a landing fly or sunburn.  The African Elephant has a marked dip between its fore and hindquarters giving a concave curvature to its back. Ears are large and fan-like. The trunk has two prehensile protrusions at the tip; elephants are highly dexterous and can pick up a tiny twig or a 2000 pound log with their trunks.  The trunk is made up of the upper lip and nose and has over 150,000 muscles.  Large tusks are present in both sexes. Elephants are digitigrade on the front feet and semi-plantigrade on the back feet.  Both feet have large pads of fibrous tissue that carry the weight on a flexible and expandable pad while protecting the toe bones that are close to the surface beneath the toenails.

Geographical Range and Habitat

Elephants once ranged over much of the African continent, but as habitat is overtaken for human use and populations decline, they are found in fewer numbers and are disappearing from the original ranges; now they are mostly restricted to parks and preserves.  Elephants are well adapted to various ecosystems and can survive in forest, bush or savannah. Natural home range size can be 500 miles—elephants spend much of their time moving in search of food, water, shade or other valuable resources.  The locations of these resources are passed down from one generation to the next; the matriarch is the repository for this information that can save the family during times of drought or hardship.

Diet

Elephants have an inefficient digestive system and only digest 40-60 percent of what they eat. Depending on the type and quality of food available, estimates from the wild elephants suggest they consume from 100–1,000 pounds of vegetation per day; captive elephants typically consume about 250 pounds of food per day. Wild elephants are known to eat up to 400 different types of plants including various grasses, trees, shrubs, roots and fruits.  In the wild, elephants spend up to 18 hours a day foraging, feeding and drinking. Elephants are drought tolerant and do not need to drink every day, but will consume an average of 30 and 50 gallons of water per day.

Tembo Preserve is dedicated to creating an elephant preserve in Northern California that provides a natural and engaging environment for elephants as well as inspires appreciation, supports research and develops innovative methods for supporting conservation.

Fast Facts

Order: Proboscidea

Family: Elephantidae

Genus: Loxodonta

Species: africana

Type: Mammal

Diet: Herbivore

Average life span in the wild: Up to 70 years

Size: Height at the shoulder, 8.2 to 13 ft. (2.5 to 4 m)

Weight: 5,000 to 14,000 lbs. (2,268 to 6,350 kg)

Group name: Herd

Protection status: Threatened

African Elephants—Highly Complex and Social Animals

African elephants are amongst the world's most intelligent species, well-known for being highly social and behaviorally complex.

 

Life Cycle/Social Structure

Matriarchal Society

Elephants live in a complex matriarchal society composed of related adult females and their offspring; the group is typically led by the eldest female who is the matriarch and leader of the group. The basic family unit consists of a female and her offspring. Related females and offspring, including adult female offspring, typically remain together in groups called Bands.  Bands consist of three or four generations of cows and female calves who spend their entire lives together; young males begin to move away from the group as they approach their teen years. Larger groups called Clans are comprised of related families and can have up to 200 individuals. The Clan maintains communication and may come together when resources are plentiful or in times of danger.

Males

Males may form loosely associated bachelor groups, and at age 12 to 14, when they are spending less time with the Family Group, often associate with these bachelor groups. Adult males spend time with these male groups when they are not in musth. Musth males are typically seen alone or on the move looking for and courting with estrus females. Ongoing studies at Amboseli Research Center in Kenya indicate a complex bull dominance structure which determines mating success. The musth period of male elephants is a key factor in successful mating. Musth is a non-seasonal, periodic hormonal cycle; most males will come in to musth once per year but at different times of the year (compare to rut seen in deer where all males are in rut at the same time). During musth, testosterone is elevated; physical manifestations include heavy secretions from temporal glands, high blood testosterone levels, urine dribbling (marking) and aggression. Cows seem to prefer a musth bull, but will successfully breed with both musth and non-musth bulls.

Females

The female oestrus cycle is roughly 15-16 weeks and they are receptive for only 3 days during this 4 month cycle. Gestation is approximately 22 months. A single calf is typically born and may weigh 175 to 250 pounds; twins are born only 1.35% of the time. The mother is often assisted by another cow during birthing. The calf can stand shakily and nurse (with mouth, not trunk) a few hours after birth. Mammary glands are located between the front legs. Although calves usually start eating other food in their first year and could survive if weaned at two and a half years of age, they will nurse until the birth of the next calf (usually 4-5 years) and are very dependent on their mothers for eight to ten years. Adolescence occurs at 12 to 14 years of age when young males typically leave the family group and young females may begin cycling and typically produce their first calf in their late teens. Most physical growth is reached at 20, but growth continues throughout life. Top mental ability is at age 30 to45. Death comes at age 65 to 70 when the last set of teeth wear out.

Special Adaptations

Elephants have the largest brain size versus body weight of any animal other than man.

  • An elephant’s enormous skull is comprised of honeycombed boney material with large sinuses; this structure facilitates the large skull size while minimizing total weight.
  • Tusks are elongated second upper incisors that grow throughout the elephant’s lifetime. They are used to gather and carry food, and as weapons.
  • Molars make up other dental equipment; elephants have 4 molar teeth at once (2 upper and 2 lower molars).  They will go through six consecutive sets of molars throughout life.  Old molars are pushed out as the new ones move into place. The first set has three enamel layers, increasing to ten layers in the sixth set.
  • The trunk is an elongation of the nose and upper lip; it contains 150,000 muscles and is used for eating, drinking, dust and water bathing, and communication.
  • The sense of smell is highly sophisticated; elephants are believed to locate underground water by smelling the earth above.
  • Vision is average but they may to depend on it the least of the senses. Long lashes and nictitating lids protect the eyes from dust.
  • Hearing is highly acute. Elephants use infrasound (tones lower than humans can hear) to communicate; these low frequency sound waves travel through the ground and allow for long-range communication.
  • Ears are also used to control body temperature; blood circulating through the large vessels in the ears is cooled by flapping. And the ears are an important part of the physical body posturing and communication.
  • Elephants have extremely sensitive skin and although it is thick in many places on their bodies, sunburn and insect bites are clearly bothersome. They roll in dust and mud, and throw dust and mud on their backs to help protect their skin.
  • Elephants have the largest brain size versus body weight of any animal other than man. New intelligence data suggests that most mammals, excluding primates, are born with a brain weight that is 90% of adult brain weight (in other words, the brain doesn’t grow much throughout life). At birth, the human brain is 26% of adult weight, and the elephant is 35% of adult weight. These statistics are used to distinguish instinctive from learned behavior, and are indicative of higher intelligence.

Bibliography

  • AnGrzimek, Bernhard. 1972. Animal Life Encyclopedia, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York.
  • Douglas-Hamilton, 1975. Among the Elephants.
  • Moss, Cynthia. 1988. Elephant Memories. Wm. Morrow & Co, New York.
  • Moss, Cynthia. 1982. Portraits in the Wild. University of Chicago Press.
  • Nowak, Ronald. 1991. Walker Mammals of the World, 5th Ed. Vol II. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Zoobooks (Elephants), 1986.

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