The elephants Elephantidae are the largest living land mammals on earth. They are powerful enough to knock down whole trees. Elephants are recognized by their large trunks (proboscis) and are believed to have appeared some 3 – 4 million years ago. Elephants are exclusively herbivorous and they feel home in savanna, forests, and semi-deserts. They are found in Africa south of the Sahara, as well as southern and southeastern Asia.
Elephant Facts for Kids
- At birth elephants weigh around 200–265 lb (90–120 kg). They have a consistent growth until reach adulthood which is unique in mammals.
- Females stop growing at 25 – 30 years while males cease at 35 – 45 years.
- The adult elephants weigh 3.3 – 7.7 tons ranging from female Asian elephant to as large as large African savanna bull.
- The shoulder height averages 7.2–11.8 ft (2.2–3.6 m).
- It has an unusually large head on a short neck. They have powerful short legs that lift the entire body weight like a pillar in a house.
- Elephant has a long tail that extends below the knee.
- They have large and thin ears along with an extremely sensitive trunk. The elephant’s trunk does not have any bone. It is composed of muscles. There around 150,000 muscle units in its trunk.
- These tusks can be as large as 79 in (200 cm) of a large bull elephant. It grows 6 in (15 cm) a year. The tusk weighs at 110 lb (50 kg). These are the figures of a large bull elephant.
Read More: Are Elephants Endangered?
- Previously African elephant used to live in the North Africa up to the Mediterranean coast but they are limited to the south of Sahara.
- Similarly Asian elephants are known to occupy much of the Near East and Pacific coast of China but are not restricted to the forests of Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia.
- Elephants make home in a variety of habitats including tropical and subtropical zones. Their habitat ranges from dry deciduous forests, savannas (such as mixed woodland and grassland mosaics), semi-deserts, and evergreen rainforests.
- Elephants are normally mixed feeders as they feed on many different plants.
- Elephants are dominant in regions where they live. They have an important ecological role.
- They have got the habit of destroying trees. In Africa, elephants seem to transfer wooded areas into open grasslands.
Read More: What Do Elephants Eat?
- Elephants live in family unit consisting of 3 – 25 individuals. Each unit is composed of related females and their young. Within the family, each female is closely related to each other they remain bonded for lives. Adult males, however fancy living a solitary life and they rarely make bonds with other males.
- The adult males remain in the family unit until 12 – 15 years of age. Although they do come back in groups for mating but they may never last long within a unit.
- Among adult females, older ones are normally responsible for looking after the group and guarding it against any potential threat.
- The calves stay with their mother almost all the time. All the group members contribute (and not just its mother) to upbringing these calves.
- If a predator shows up the adult females wheel round to face the threat while keeping the young close behind.
- During migration, extremely large herds comprising of 500 – 1,000 elephants are seen. However, the individuality of each group is maintained.
- They are highly intelligent animals with complex social interactions.
- Elephants wrestle each other with their trunks.
- Male elephants often find themselves in a state known as ‘musth’.
- They have poor eyesight but they are extremely sensitive to taste and smell.
- Elephants have sharp hearing and they communicate through many different vocalizations. African elephants produce 25 unique calls that are unique to human ear. These calls are audible to other elephants over a range of up to 3 mi (5 km).
- Elephants have a lifespan of 60 years and they may die out of starvation, disease, predation, and injury.
- Elephants have a unique behavior in that they circle around any wounded animal to prevent further attack. Sometimes they lift the wounded animal to its feet and take it away to the safe place.
- Contrary to popular belief that elephants visit their graveyard (when they are about to die) i.e. a place where they go and last their breath, is nothing but a myth.
- Elephants are not territorial animals. Although the groups do mark their territories but they seldom defend it against their counterparts. Their territories often overlap with each other.
- Elephants lie down when they are asleep. They remain asleep for 2 – 4 hours early in the morning. During summer, elephants are likely to stand under shades with their eyes closed but they do not actually sleep while standing. It’s a sort of dozing.
- Elephants do move around and they often leave their trails on the ground which are 3–6 ft (1–2 m) wide, and can extend for tens of miles (kilometers).
- They cannot jump or even gallop but they do walk or amble. They walk at a speed of 1.6–8.2 ft (0.5–2.5 m) per second, or 1.2–6.2 mph (2–10 kph). Elephants are able to charge at a speed of 16 ft (5 m) per second, or 12.4 mph (20 kph).
- Elephants are highly attentive while walking in that they place each foot with care to avoid any soft patch.
- They are expert swimmers too as they paddle with all four feet and a trunk.
Feeding Ecology and Diet
- Elephants typically feed on a wide range of plants such as herbs (forbs), broadleaved trees, grasses, vines, and palms.
- They will consume almost each part of the plant including twigs, bark, leaves, shoots, flowers, tubers, branches, fruit, bulbs, and roots.
- They are known to consume 100 – 500 different plant species but they focus on a few species in a given time.
- Elephants change their dietary requirements with the change in season. During rainy season, they fancy eating new growth grasses which makes up 50 – 60% of the diet. In the dry season, elephants mostly browse as grass becomes tough. During this time, fruits and shrubs make up 70% of the elephant’s diet.
- Elephants living in Asia are more apt to feed on bamboo year-round whereas those living in central Africa and Malaysia primarily feeds on fruits and succulent leaves.
- Elephants consume 220–660 lb (100–300 kg) food each day.
- They remain busy in eating 12 – 18 hours a day mostly in the early hours of morning or late afternoon.
- In forest where food is abundant the elephants move gradually while browsing on several plants.
- They drink 53 gal (200 l) of water every day in summer. When the water becomes inadequate elephants dig holes with their trunk or even tusks until the water seeps in.
- Elephants are more likely to feed on plants or fruits when these are readily available. They use smell and memory from the past to identify plants species.
- They travel great distances in search of food and water. Elephants have a home range of 23 mi2 (60 km2) in a rich rainforest habitat in Malaysia, while in the Namib Desert the range is 1,158 mi2 (3,000 km2).
- Elephants pluck small plants with the terminal ‘fingers’ of the trunk whereas the larger items are usually twisted by curling the trunk around it.
- Elephants can also stand on their rear legs (only) especially when they have to reach high branches of young leaves of acacia trees. They can reach up to 26 ft (8 m). Elephants push over trees as well.
- Elephant’s reproduction is slow in that the female gives birth for 4 – 5 years only. Twins are unlikely as 1 out of every 100 births end up in twins.
- It also takes quite a long time for a young elephant to reach adulthood.
- Females become mature at 12 – 14 years of age. They are called ‘cows’ while males are known as ‘bulls’.
- The gestation period lasts for 22 months.
- Elephants have long been the subject of hunting and habitat destruction. Their ivory is primarily used for several commercial purposes and it is a precious commodity.
- Gone are the days when elephants used to roam around freely in a wide range. Now they are limited within human settlement and agriculture.
- Human population is growing from time to time as a result of which elephants are no longer found in their natural habitats.
- At present, one can only come across elephants in national parks, nature reserves, and the like. Although they are captive in large numbers yet their future prospects associated with the survival remains bleak.
- The practice of elephant’s hunting has been carried out in prehistoric times and still it continues. Elephants found in southern and West Africa had already died out in 1800.
- The 1970s and 1980s turned out to be even more critical in that the total population in Africa had reduced from 1.3 million in 1979 to just over 400,000 in 1987.
- Some elephants have often been in conflict with humans as they damage buildings and kill villagers.
- There are around 34,000 – 54,000 Asian elephants left in the wild while in captivity the figures are 13,000 – 16,000. Current estimates of total population size of African elephants are 300,000 – 500,000 animals.
Buss, Irven O. Elephant Life: Fifteen Years of High Population Density. Ames IA: Iowa State University Press, 1990.
Eltringham, S.K., ed. The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Elephants. New York: Crescent Books, 1991.
Maglio, Vincent J. “Origin and Evolution of the Elephantidae.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 63, no. 2 (1973): 1–149.
Shoshani, Jeheskel, and Pascal Tassy, eds. The Proboscidea: Evolution and Palaeoecology of Elephants and their Relatives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
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