Elephants: What Do They Eat, Where Do They Live and What Makes Them Special?

Everything you ever wanted to know about these impressive pachyderms

African elephant
African elephant (Photo: Getty Images).

Elephants once roamed over large swaths of Africa and Asia. But they were almost wiped completely off of the map by the aggressive ivory trade of the early 20th century. Fortunately, international regulations were put in place at the latter part of that century to protect these gentle giants, and there populations - while still diminished - are finally beginning to recover.

Elephants are massive mammals.

They can reach a height of 13 feet and a weight of 15,000 pounds. In general, there are two recognized subspecies of elephants - the African elephant and the Asian elephant, with the greatest difference between the two being their physical location. African elephants are scattered throughout sub-saharan Africa while Asian elephants are found in southern and southeastern Asia.

These massive creatures are known for their thick bodies, stocky legs, giant floppy ears, trunks, and tusks. Those big ears help elephants stay cool in hot, dry conditions. And their trunks serve as a fifth limb which they use to breathe, grasp objects, lift water, and even suckle for comfort.

Another big difference between Asian and African elephants is their tusks. Both male and female African elephants have tusks, unlike Asian elephants in which only the males have tusks - and not even all males. It is the elephant's tusks -made of ivory- that are so valuable to poachers.

Asian elephants are also smaller than their African peers, and their ears have straight edges at the bottoms unlike the fan-like shape of African elephant ears. Another key difference? Asian elephants have four toes on their hind feet and five on the forefeet, while African elephants have three on their hind feet and five on the forefeet.

Elephants are herbivores that live in many different types of habitat from savannah to marsh to forest. They are considered keystone species due to their impact on the environment in which they live. They are very social animals that live together in large groups, usually comprised of several female elephants - called cows - and their babies - or calves. Often these groups are made up from females and baby elephants from several different families. These elephants are led by a matriarch - typically the oldest female in the group. Male elephants - called bulls - usually leave the group once they reach puberty and may live alone or with other bulls. 

Elephants have the longest known pregnancy of any living mammal. Elephant mothers carry their babies for 22 months in the womb and then care for their babies for several years after birth. 

One topic that has been the subject of lots of research regarding elephants is their methods of communication. Elephants have been known to communicate via touch, sight, smell, and sound. Over long distances, they can use seismic communication - or vibrations made by stomping their feet - to communicate dangers to other members of the herd.

Elephants are prey animals that are hunted by top predators such as lions, tigers, and hyenas.

But usually, these animals only go after the very young or the very old. The elephant's greatest threat is humankind. Both African and Asian elephants were hunted nearly to extinction before a ban on ivory trade was enacted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 1989. Asian elephants are still classified as endangered, while African elephants are considered vulnerable. 

Habitat loss is another threat that faces the existence of elephants. Human-elephant conflicts have increased over the years as humans have encroached more and more upon elephant habitat and migratory routes.