10 Essential Elephant Facts

Few animals on earth have been mourned, mythologized, and just plain marveled at like the elephants of Africa and Asia. In this article, you'll learn 10 essential elephant facts, ranging from how these pachyderms use their trunks to how females gestate their young for almost two years.​

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There Are 3 Different Elephant Species

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All of the world's pachyderms are accounted for by three species: the African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana), the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), and the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). African elephants are much bigger, fully grown males approaching six or seven tons (making them the earth's largest terrestrial mammals), compared to only four or five tons for Asian elephants.

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An Elephant's Trunk Is an All-Purpose Tool

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Besides its enormous size, the most notable thing about an elephant is its trunk; basically an extremely elongated nose and upper lip. Elephants use their trunks not only to breathe, smell and eat, but to grasp the branches of trees, pick up objects weighing as much as 700 pounds, affectionately fondle other elephants, dig for hidden water, and give themselves showers. Trunks contain over 100,000 bundles of muscle fibers, which can make them surprisingly delicate and precise tools. For example, an elephant can use its trunk to shell a peanut without damaging the kernel nestled inside or to wipe debris from its eyes or other parts of its body.

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An Elephant's Ears Help to Dissipate Heat

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Given how enormous they are, and the hot, humid climates in which they live, it makes sense that elephants evolved a way to shed excessive heat. An elephant can't flap its ears to make itself fly (a la Walt Disney's Dumbo), but the large surface area of its ears is lined with a dense network of blood vessels, which convey heat to the surrounding environment and thus help to cool the pachyderm down in the blazing sun. Not surprisingly, the large ears of elephants convey another evolutionary advantage: in ideal conditions, an African or Asian elephant can hear a herd mate's call from over five miles away, as well as the approach of any predators that might threaten the herd's juveniles.

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Elephants Are Extremely Intelligent Animals

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In absolute terms, adult elephants have enormous brains, up to 12 pounds for fully grown males, compared to four pounds, max, for the average human (in relative terms, though, the brains of elephants are much smaller compared to their overall body size). Not only can elephants use primitive tools with their trunks, but they also display a high degree of self-awareness (for example, recognizing themselves in mirrors) and empathy toward other herd members. Some elephants have even been observed tenderly fondling the bones of their deceased companions, though naturalists disagree whether this shows a primitive awareness of the concept of death.

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Elephant Herds Are Dominated by Females

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Elephants have evolved a unique social structure: essentially, males and females live entirely apart, hooking up only briefly during mating season. Three or four females, together with their young, congregate in herds of up to a dozen or so members, while males either live alone or form smaller herds with other males. Female herds have a matrilineal structure: members follow the lead of the matriarch, and when this elderly female dies, her place is taken by her oldest daughter. As with humans (at least most of the time), experienced matriarchs are renowned for their wisdom, leading herds away from potential dangers (such as fires or floods) and toward abundant sources of food and shelter.

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Elephant Pregnancies Lasts Almost Two Years

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At 22 months, African elephants have the longest gestation period of any terrestrial mammal (though not of any vertebrate on earth; for example, the eel-frilled shark gestates its young for over three years!) Newborn elephants weigh a whopping 250 pounds, and they usually have to wait for at least four or five years for any siblings, given female elephants' extremely long interbirth intervals. What this means, in practical terms, is that it takes an unusually long time for devastated populations of elephants to replenish themselves, which makes these mammals especially susceptible to poaching by humans.

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Elephants Evolved Over the Course of 50 Million Years

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Elephants, and elephant ancestors used to be a lot more common than they are today. As far as we can tell from the fossil evidence, the ultimate progenitor of all elephants was the tiny, pig-like Phosphatherium, which lived in northern Africa about 50 million years ago; a dozen million years later, by the late Eocene epoch, more recognizably "elephant-y" proboscis-like Phiomia and Barytherium were thick on the ground. Toward the later Cenozoic Era, some branches of the elephant family were characterized by their spoon-like lower tusks, and the golden age of the breed was the Pleistocene epoch, a million years ago, when the North American Mastodon and the Woolly Mammoth roamed the northern expanses of North America and Eurasia. Today, oddly enough, the closest living relatives of elephants are dugongs and manatees.

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Elephants Are Crucial Components of Their Ecosystems

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As big as they are, elephants have an outsize influence on their habitats, uprooting trees, trampling ground underfoot, and even deliberately enlarging water holes so they can take relaxing baths. These behaviors benefit not only the elephants themselves but also other animals, which take advantage of these environmental changes. On the other end of the scale, when elephants eat in one location and defecate in another, they function as crucial dispersers of seeds; many plants, trees, and bushes would have a hard time surviving if their seeds didn't feature on elephant menus.

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Elephants Were the Sherman Tanks of Ancient Warfare

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There's nothing like a five-ton elephant, decked out with elaborate armor and its tusks capped with spear-points of brass, to inspire fear in the enemy, or there was nothing like that over 2,000 years ago when the kingdoms of India and Persia drafted pachyderms into their armies. The ancient deployment of war elephants reached its apogee around 400 to 300 BC, and ran its course with the Carthaginian general Hannibal, who tried to invade Rome, by way of the Alps, in 217 BC. After that, elephants mostly fell out of favor with the classical civilizations of the Mediterranean basin, but continued to be used by various Indian and Asian warlords. The true death knell of armored elephants came in the late 15th century when a well-placed cannon shot could easily fell a rampaging bull.

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Elephants Continue to Be Endangered by the Ivory Trade

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While elephants are subject to the same environmental pressures as other animals they are especially vulnerable to poachers, who value these mammals for the ivory contained in their tusks. In 1990, a worldwide ban on the ivory trade led to the rebound of some African elephant populations, but poachers in Africa continued to defy the law, a notorious case being the slaughter of over 600 elephants in Cameroon by raiders from the neighboring country of Chad. One positive development is the recent decision by China to outlaw the import and export of ivory; this hasn't completely eliminated poaching by ruthless ivory dealers, but it has certainly helped.

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Strauss, Bob. "10 Essential Elephant Facts." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, thoughtco.com/10-facts-about-elephants-4134152. Strauss, Bob. (2021, September 3). 10 Essential Elephant Facts. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/10-facts-about-elephants-4134152 Strauss, Bob. "10 Essential Elephant Facts." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/10-facts-about-elephants-4134152 (accessed June 8, 2023).