Let’s Talk about Elephants
Belonging to the family of Elephantidae, elephants are mammals and the biggest existing land animals. Three species of this mammal are recognized: the Asian elephant, the African forest elephant, and the African bush elephant. Elephantidae family is the only surviving group in the order of Proboscidea. Its extinct members include mastodons. The Elephantidae family also has numerous now-extinct groups, such as straight-tusked elephants and mammoths. African elephants have concave backs and bigger ears, whereas Asian elephants possess level or convex backs and smaller ears.
All elephants have certain distinctive features such as hard but sensitive skin, long proboscis known as a trunk, huge ear flaps, tusks, and massive legs. They use their trunks for breathing, bringing water and food to the mouth, and grasping things. Tusks are derived from their incisor teeth and work both as tools to dig and move objects and serve like weapons. The huge ear flaps help to maintain a steady body temperature and to communicate. Their heavyweight is carried by their pillar-like legs.
Where are they Found?
You can find elephants scattered all across Southeast Asia, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. They are found in numerous habitats, including marshes, forests, deserts, and savannahs. Elephants are herbivores and stay close to water whenever it is accessible. Thanks to their impact on the environment, elephants are regarded as keystone species. They maintain a fission-fusion society where numerous family members get together for socializing. Cows (females) usually live within family groups with numerous related cows (females) with their offspring or one cow with her calves.
Bulls are not included in these groups, usually led by the oldest cow, called the matriarch. The bulls (males) move out of their family groups after reaching puberty. They either live with other males or live alone. Adult bulls usually interact with the family groups when they look for a mate. They get into a state of aggression and increased testosterone, known as musth. Musth helps them in reproductive success by giving them dominance over other bulls. The centre of attention within family groups is the calves as they depend on their mothers until they are three years old.
Living in the Wild
When living in the wild, elephants can survive for as many as 70 years. They use sound, smell and sight, and touch for communicating with each other. They also use seismic and infrasound communication to interact over long distances. The intelligence of elephants has been compared with that of cetaceans and primates. They are shown to possess self-awareness as they appear to reflect empathy for the dead and dying family members.
Threats to Elephants
Asian elephants are listed as endangered and African elephants are termed vulnerable by IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature. One of the primary threats to their populations is the ivory trade. It is their ivory tusks for which the elephants are poached. In Asia, they are used as working beasts. They were also used in wars in the past. In today’s time, elephants are frequently controversially exploited for entertainment purposes in circuses or exhibited in zoos. They are very recognizable and have been a part of popular culture, literature, religion, art, and folklore.
Let’s Talk about African Elephants
The biggest land animals are the African elephants, with their body growth continuing for as many as thirty years. Males (bulls) may grow up to 9-13 feet in height at the shoulder while weighing around 9,000-13,000 pounds. The females (cows) are smaller, with an average height of 7-9 feet at the shoulder with around 4,500-7,000 pounds. The Savanna Elephants is considered to be the biggest among all the elephants. Not only that, but this species is also the biggest land animal in the world. The male Savanna Elephant is 10-13 feet at the shoulder and weighs around 7,700 lb to a whopping 26,000 lb.
Ecology of Elephants
African bush elephants are found in diverse habitats such as lakeshore, marshes, deserts, savannahs, and elevations above sea level. They can also survive in mountainous regions above the snow line. You can find forest elephants primarily in equatorial forests. However, they also get into gallery forests as well as eco-tones between savannahs and forests. Asian elephants usually prefer regions with a mix of trees, grasses, and low woody plants. They primarily live in dry thorn-scrub forests within Sri Lanka and southern India, as well as in evergreen forests of Malaya.
Activities and Eating Habits of Elephants
Herbivorous in nature, elephants feed on leaves, grass, twigs, roots, fruits, and bark. They have sterile intestines right from their birth. Hence, they need bacteria provided from their mom’s faeces for digesting vegetation. Asian elephants are mostly grazer, while the African ones are mainly browsers. They can eat as much as 330 lb (150 kg) of food and 11 US gal (40 litres) of water in just one day. They usually stay close to water sources.
Main feeding bouts happen during the mornings, afternoons, and nights. During the mid-day, elephants take shelter under trees. They take rest and may doze off even while standing. They lay down at night to fall asleep. They sleep for 3-4 hours every day. Both family groups and males move around 10-20 kilometres every day. Having said that, records show that they have covered as far as 90 to 180 kilometres of distance in Namibia’s Etosha region. They go for seasonal migrations in search of mates, food, minerals, and water. At Botswana’s Chobe National Park, herds of elephants travel 325 km for visiting the rivers after the regional waterholes dry up.
Their Impact on the Environment
Due to their massive size, elephants leave a great impact on their environments. This is why they are regarded as keystone species. They are known for uprooting undergrowth and trees, which can turn savannahs into grasslands. While digging for water in a drought, elephants make waterholes which other animals can also use. While bathing and wallowing in waterholes, they end up enlarging the waterholes. At Mount Elgon, these herbivorous giants excavate caves used by insects, birds, bats, hyraxes, and ungulates. They are also significant seed dispersers; the African forest elephants defecate seeds after ingesting them. This either leaves zero effect or a positive effect over germination. Typically, the seeds get dispersed in huge amounts across great distances. In the Asian forests, big seeds need massive herbivores such as elephants and rhinoceros for dispersal and transportation.
The tapir, the next biggest herbivore, cannot fill this ecological niche. As most of the food eaten by an elephant is undigested, the dung can give food to other creatures, such as monkeys and dung beetles. However, elephants can also have negative impacts on ecosystems. In Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park, elephants are found in overabundance. It has lead to a threat to numerous species of tiny birds which rely on woodlands for their survival. The weight of elephants can also compact the soil. It leads to rainwater runoff, and that ultimately results in erosion. (See Are Elephants Really Afraid of Mice?)
Coexistence with Other Animals
Typically, elephants live in peaceful coexistence with other herbivores that generally stay out of their way. There have been records of a few aggressive interactions between rhinoceros and elephants. At Kenya’s Aberdare National Park, an elephant calf was attacked by a rhino. Various other elephants of the group came together and ultimately killed the rhino. At South Africa’s Hluhluwe–Umfolozi Game Reserve introduced immature orphan elephants got into a killing speed which killed 36 rhino in the 1990s. It ended after older males were introduced. Thanks to their massive size, elephants are almost invulnerable to predators. There have been rare reports of adult elephants being hunted down by tigers.
Calves may fall prey to tigers in Asia and wild dogs, lions, and spotted hyenas in Africa. The lions of Savuti in Botswana are adapted to hunt elephants, generally juveniles, calves, or even sub-adults. This happened in the dry season when a pride of thirty lions took down juvenile elephants aged between 4 to 11 years and, in an exceptional case, a bull of around 15 years. Elephants can distinguish the growls of bigger predators such as tigers from smaller predators such as leopards. There has been no record of leopards killing calves. They give less fearful and more aggressive reactions to leopards. They usually have higher numbers of parasites, specifically nematodes, as compared to other herbivorous creatures. It is because of lower predation pressures that would otherwise kill various individuals of significant parasite loads.
What Is The Average Size Of An Adult Elephant?
How big is a full-grown elephant? The average elephant will grow between 8.2 to 13 feet (2.5 to 4 meters) from shoulder to toe and weigh between 5,000 to 14,000 lbs.