Elephants are large and majestic animals, and are known as the gentle giants of the animal kingdom. There are two types of species of elephant, the African and Asian, and they once populated 37 African countries and 13 in Asia. Just 30 years ago there were 1.3 million in Africa alone. Now due to hunting and poaching, the elephant has had their numbers reduced to around 500,000 in the wild, making them an endangered animal. The biggest threat facing elephants is the loss and destruction of their natural habitat, and the ivory trade, as they are hunted for their ivory tusks.

Elephants are Social and Sensitive Animals

Elephants are very social and sensitive animals, and can display a wide range of emotions. Females and young elephants travel in herds and are then joined by males during the mating season.  The eldest of the female elephants leads the herd, which can have up to 10 members.  The female leader will remain the leader of the herd until she dies, and the herd will then be led by her eldest daughter.

Elephants communicate with each other with their trunks, as well as tummy rumbles, grunts, whistles and loud bellows. Elephants are also known to be very sensitive and express great care, joy, compassion and even fear through their body language, trumpeting, rumbling, roaring, dancing and spinning. They have family reunions, assist disabled elephants, mourn the dead and can even cry. Elephants have been known to refuse to leave the body of a dead relative.

Elephant(127177)Credit: morguefile

An Elephant's Trunk

An elephant’s unique trunk is an elongation of its nose and upper lip. It has several functions, including breathing, feeding and smelling. An elephant’s trunk has around 40,000 muscles, weighs about 140 kilograms (310 pounds) and can lift up to 350 kilograms (770 pounds). An elephant’s stunk is powerful enough to kill a lion with a single swipe, but is also flexible and agile enough to pick grass. Elephants also use their trunks as an arm to feed themselves, and when they’re hot, they use it to spray water over their huge dusty bodies to cool down. They also used their trunks as a snorkel when swimming or across through deep water.

As they are social animals, elephants will often wrap their trunks together as a sign of love and use them to greet each another. An elephant calf will also sometimes suck its trunk for comfort, in a similar fashion to a human baby who sucks its thumb.

An Elephant's Tusks

Tusks form on an elephant when the animal reaches 6–12 months of age and  keep growing continuously at a rate of around 17 centimetres (7 inches) per year. An elephant will use their tusks for digging up water, salt or roots, clearing a path through trees or branches, as well as for marking or de-barking trees. The tusks also serve as weapons when fighting, and help the elephant protect its trunk.

An Elephant's Skin

The skin on an elephant is very course and hard, and is about 2.5 centimetres (1 inch) thick. The skin is usually grey, but can appear a reddish brown because of dirt and hair. The skin of an elephant is very sensitive and prone to sunburn, so an elephant will cover itself in mud, which acts like a sunscreen. Without regular mud baths to protect the skin from burning, insect bites and moisture loss, an elephant's skin suffers serious damage, much like when a human gets sunburnt.

An Elephant's Memory

As the popular belief says, elephants have a great memory. An elephant must retain vital facts about predators, other elephants and their habitat if they want to survive. They use their memories as a survival mechanism. Scientists believe that the older the elephant, the better their memories are, which means that if an older elephant dies, it can weaken the herd for years, leaving it extremely vulnerable.

In an example of how elephants use their memories, in Kenya, elephants are known for visiting a cave that is at an extinct volcano. Lead by the elder and leader, the elephants move through the pitch darkness of the cave, slowing making their way forwards and around the boulders. Eventually they come to a wall where they pull away chunks of soft salt rock to eat. Even the baby elephants follow their mothers into the cave. Even though they don’t have a taste for salt at such a young age, they learn the journey, so they can commit the path to memory for when they need to return in the future.

Elephant(127178)Credit: morguefile

Jumping Elephants?

Although elephants can stand on two legs and climb up and down from platforms, it is impossible for them to jump. There are many reasons as to why this could be, with one suggesting that it is because of their enormous weight that they simply cannot have all four feet off the ground at once. Others argue that it is because the bones in elephants’ feet are more closely packed together than those of other mammals, so they don’t possess the flexibility or push in the foot needed for jumping.

More Elephant Facts

  • A newborn baby elephant weighs more than an adult human
  • Female elephants have breast between their front legs that are used to fee their young.
  • Young elephants hold on to their mothers’ tail for security, protection and reassurance. 
  • A female elephant has a gestational period of 22 months.
  • After a long courtship, the actual act of mating between elephants takes less than a minute.
  • Elephants walk on the very tips of their toes.
  • The wrinkles found on an elephant’s skin help keep the elephant cool.
  • Young male elephants will stay with a herd until they are around 13, at which point they will leave to go out on their own or join a bachelor group.
  • Elephants can’t technically run, but can walk at speeds of up to 40 kilometres per hour (25 mph).
  • On display at a museum in the US is the largest known specimen of the African Elephant. It stood at 3.96 metres (13 feet) and weighed 12,240 kilograms (26,990 pounds).
  • In the wild, elephants can live to be around 60-70 years old.