Elephants have captivated humans for thousands of years, simply due to their immense size. African elephants are the largest living land animals on earth! These elephants can be easily identified due to their long tusks and large ears. Read on to learn about the African elephant.
Description of the African Elephant
The best word to describe African elephants is “huge”! The larger species can grow over 13 ft. tall at the shoulder, and weigh 13,000 lbs. or more. They have a long, prehensile nose called a trunk. This trunk has two lips on the end that allow it to very carefully grasp items.
They have two tusks, a pair of large ears, and four thick legs. Their skin is gray in color, and incredibly thick. They frequently wallow in mud to protect their skin from sunburn.
Interesting Facts About the African Elephant
These amazingly massive and intelligent animals are highly specialized. From their social interactions to their anatomy, elephants are incredibly fascinating creatures.
- Toothy Tusks – Elephants’ long tusks are actually modified teeth. They can grow up to eight feet long, and both male and female elephants can have them. These tusks are used to dig roots from the ground, strip the bark from trees, and battle one another during the breeding season. They are also the reason elephants are poached, as they are sold illegally as ivory.
- Hear Me Now? – The incredible size of an elephant’s ears is not just for hearing! Their huge, flattened ears serve as a built-in air conditioner. Elephant ears are full of blood vessels, and when they flap their ears the blood vessels are cooled, releasing heat from the body. This adaptation is incredibly important in the hot environments elephants can inhabit.
- The Nose, Knows! – One of the most iconic body parts an elephant possesses is its trunk. This highly specialized nose is also highly sensitive. The trunk has 8 main muscles, and 150,000 muscle fascicles, or muscle portions. This allows elephants to have utmost control over their trunks. An elephant can use its trunk to knock over a tree, or to pick up a single piece of hay.
- Built In Straw – The incredible trunk of an elephant also doubles as a personal straw, sort of… While elephants can suck water up into their trunks, if they inhaled it all the way they would suffocate. Instead, elephants suck up a trunkful of water, curl the trunk to their mouths, and pour the water in.
Habitat of the African Elephant
African bush elephants live in a number of different ecosystems. They can be found in flood plains, savannas, montane forests, woodlands, and more. The smaller African forest elephants inhabit semi-deciduous, moist rainforests.
Distribution of the African Elephant
African elephants can be found scattered across sub-Saharan Africa. The bush elephants are found throughout central, eastern, and southern Africa. The forest elephants are found in the denser forests of the Congo basin and West Africa. Larger African bush elephant species cannot spread into these areas, as their large size makes it difficult to travel through dense forest.
Diet of the African Elephant
Elephants are herbivores, and will eat a wide variety of vegetation. Some common food items include fruit, leaves, bark, grass, flowering plants, leaves, shrubs, and even small trees. African forest elephants feed more heavily on fruits, seeds, leaves, bark, and branches.
They use their prehensile trunks to pick leaves from branches, pull mouthfuls of grass, and rip entire branches from trees. A single elephant can consume over 900 lbs. of plants in a day. That’s nearly half a ton!
African Elephant and Human Interaction
Humans cause extreme African elephant population decline and fragmentation. Indirectly, land development and urbanization push elephants out of their habitat. Farming also reduces available natural foraging, and this leads to conflicts with farmers. Elephants can decimate crop production in just a few nights, and farmers will retaliate with attempts at killing the elephants.
Sadly, these conflicts aren’t even the most pressing danger to African elephant survival. Illegal poaching and sale of ivory on the black market decimated elephant populations. In Tanzania alone, it is estimated that 60% of the elephant population was lost between 2009 and 2014. We humans are fighting back, by protecting the African elephants that are left, and battling the illegal trade of ivory.
Unlike Asian elephants, which have been somewhat domesticated for use by native peoples, African elephants have not been domesticated in any way.
Does the African Elephant Make a Good Pet
Not only is it illegal to own an African elephant as a pet, but it is also extremely dangerous and expensive! Such large animals are simply impractical to own as a pet.
African Elephant Care
In zoos, African elephants are provided with large amounts of space to roam, and plenty of browse to feed on. Because they are social animals, they are kept in small herds. Because they are extremely intelligent, they must be provided with lots of environmental enrichment in the form of toys, puzzles, water hoses, and training.
To keep them healthy, they are trained using positive reinforcement to perform behaviors that help zookeepers take care of them. These behaviors are called husbandry behaviors. Some examples include nail trimming and foot care, dental examinations, standing on a scale for weighing, ultrasounds, and voluntarily allowing their blood to be drawn for testing.
In zoos, elephants don’t have to search for food all day, so they burn much fewer calories! At the San Diego Zoo, elephants are fed 125 lbs. of food each day. This includes hay, commercial herbivore pellets, celery, lettuce, acacia branches and leaves, and cucumbers. They are also provided with fresh water, and can drink between 20 and 50 gallons in a day.
Behavior of the African Elephant
Elephants have very tight knit social bonds, and live in groups called herds. The leader of the herd is the oldest female, and she is known as a matriarch. The matriarch is responsible for remembering where the most reliable food and water sources are.
Male elephants are less social, and once they reach sexual maturity they usually leave the herd. They will live on their own, or with other males in bachelor herds. The only time they interact with females is to mate.
Reproduction of the African Elephant
After mating, the female elephant has a gestation period of 22 months – nearly 2 years! The male elephant takes no part in the care of the calf, and leaves after mating. When the calf is born, the entire herd takes part in protecting and raising it. For the first year, the calf will gain between 2 and three 3 per day! It can take between 2 and 3 years before they are fully weaned.