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Facts About Elephants | African Elephants & Asian Elephants

elephant species, conservation
Credit: Elephant image Shutterstock

Elephants are the largest land animals on Earth. They have characteristic long noses, or trunks; large, floppy ears; and wide, thick legs. There are two species of elephant. The Asian elephant and the African elephant live on separate continents and have many unique features. There are several subspecies that belong to one or the other of these two main species, though there is disagreement over just how many subspecies there are.

Size

African elephants are the larger of the two species. They grow 8.2 to 13 feet (2.5 to 4 meters) from shoulder to toe and weigh 5,000 to 14,000 lbs. (2,268 to 6,350 kilograms), according to the National Geographic. Asian elephants can grow up to 6.6 to 9.8 feet (2 to 3 m) from shoulder to toe and weigh up to 2.25 to 5.5 tons (2,041 to 4,990 kg). 

elephants, ivory, tusks, poaching
Older elephants with larger tusks are becoming rarer due to their ivory.
Credit: Muhammad Mahdi Karim, CC BY-SA

Habitat

African elephants live in sub-Saharan Africa, the rain forests of Central and West Africa and the Sahel desert in Mali. Asian elephants live in Nepal, India and Southeast Asia in scrub forests and rain forests.

Diet

Elephants eat grasses, roots, fruit and bark. They use their tusks to pull the bark from trees and dig roots out of the ground. 

An elephant has an appetite that matches its size. An adult can eat 300 lbs. (136 kg) of food in a day, according to the National Geographic.

a herd of elephants from behind
Extra large elephants are prone to health problems. But it's difficult to measure body fat on the huge creatures.
Credit: Alta Oosthuizen/Shutterstock.com

Habits 

A group of elephants is called a herd. The herd is led by a matriarch, which is the oldest female. Females, as well as young and old elephants, stick together in a herd. Adult males tend to wander on their own.

Elephants also have certain rules. For example, when they are meeting each other, they expect the other elephant to extend its trunk in greeting. The matriarch will often teach young elephants in her herd how to act properly.

Offspring

Asian elephant calf
Credit: DNP-Government of Thailand/WCS Thailand Program.

Male elephants are called bulls and females are called cows. After mating, the cow will be pregnant for around 22 months. When the baby elephant is finally born, it can weigh around 200 lbs. (91 kg) and stand about 3 feet (1 m) tall. 

A baby elephant is called a calf. As the calf grows, it will gain 2 to 3 lbs. every day until its first birthday. By the time they are 2 or 3 years old, calves are ready to be weaned. Male calves will wander off on their own, while females will stay with their mothers. When they are 13 to 20 years old, they will be mature enough to have their own young. Elephants live 30 to 50 years in the wild.

Classification/Taxonomy 

The taxonomy of elephants, according to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS), is:

Kingdom: Animalia
Subkingdom: Bilateria  
Infrakingdom: Deuterostomia  
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Infraphylum: Gnathostomata  
Superclass: Tetrapoda  
Class: Mammalia  
Subclass: Theria
Infraclass: Eutheria 
Order: Proboscidea 
Family: Elephantidae       
Genera & speciesLoxodonta africana (African savannah elephant), Loxodonta cyclotis (African forest elephant), Elephas maximus (Asian elephant) 
Subspecies: ITIS recognizes:  

  • Elephas maximus indicus (Indian elephant)
  • Elephas maximus maximus (Sri Lankan elephant)
  • Elephas maximus sumatranus (Sumatran elephant)

Another possible subspecies is Elephas maximus borneensis (Borneo pygmy elephant). The World Wildlife Fund has determined that DNA evidence proves that the Borneo pygmy elephantis genetically different from other Asian elephants.

Elephant Poaching
The male elephant Changila, shortly before poachers killed him near the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya.
Credit: David Daballen

Conservation status

According to the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Asian elephant is endangered. Though it is not known exactly how many Asian elephants remain, it is believed that the population is decreasing. The African elephant is considered vulnerable. Overall, its populations are increasing. According to the African Wildlife Foundation, there are around 470,000 African elephants roaming the globe.

Other facts

The African elephant can be identified by its ears. Stretched out, its ears are shaped like the African continent. Asian elephants have smaller ears, which are more rounded on top and flat along the bottom. Heat radiates out of the elephant's massive ears, acting as a cooling mechanism.

The largest elephant ever recorded was an African elephant, according to the San Diego Zoo. It was 24,000 lbs. (10,886 kg) and 13 feet (3.96 m) tall from its feet to its shoulders.

When it gets too hot, African elephants will suck water into their trunks and then blow it back out to shower themselves with a cool mist. 

An elephant's trunk has more than 100,000 muscles, according to National Geographic. They use it to breathe, pick things up, make noises, drink and smell.

In the same way that humans tend to be right-handed or left-handed, elephants can be right-tusked or left-tusked. Their dominant tusk is easy to identify, because it will be more worn down than the less dominant tusk, according to the World Wildlife Fund.  

An elephant's skin can be as thick as 1 inch, but it is sensitive to the sun. To protect it, elephants will cover themselves in mud or dust.

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