Elephants are one of the Africa’s most iconic species, easily recognizable and fascinating. These beautiful creatures are one of the biggest species on the planet, and the largest living land animal. Their sheer size, intelligence and prehistoric origins – elephants are the descendants of mammoths-has captured human imagination for many years, while their precious tusks have put them at the center of an ever-increasing network of illegal wildlife trade.
There are generally two recognized elephant species: The African elephant and the Asian elephant. They live in a range of habitats throughout Southern and Southeast Asia and in the sub-Saharan Africa.
African elephants are vulnerable to extinction, while their Asian cousins are listed as endangered [1,2]. Globally, elephants are faced with a number of threats, including illegal poaching for their ivory tusks, habitat loss and fragmentation, and conflicts with humans. But there are so many reasons to love and admire these gentle giants and fight for their survival.
Here are some of the most fascinating facts about elephants.
Cool facts about elephants you may have not known
Did you know this about elephants? These are just some interesting facts about the world’s largest land animal, the elephant.
#1 Slow life
Elephants can live for up to 70 years. The oldest recorded elephant died in captivity aged 86 years old .
Combine this with their slow reproductive rate and long gestation period, and it is obvious that decimated populations will take centuries to recover. They generally give birth every three or four years but are pregnant for almost two years before giving birth – the longest time period of any land animal.
#2 Passionate eaters
Elephants can spend up to 16 hours eating every day in order to fuel their huge bodies.
This sometimes leads to conflicts with local farmers or villagers, as a single elephant has the ability to destroy a crop on its own in a matter of hours, eating up to 300 pounds of food (150 kilograms) per day.
#3 Extreme coordination
The trunk of an elephant contains around 100,000 different muscles – yes, a hundred thousand muscles .
To put this in perspective, the entire human body only contains approximately 650 muscles.
This huge number of muscles allows the elephant to move its trunk in nearly any direction, and to perform any number of fine and coordinated movements.
#4 The surprising method of cooling
Along with hearing, the elephant’s ears have a second, extremely important function. They act as giant heat dispersal units.
Due to their huge size, elephants produce huge amounts of metabolic heat, and would therefore easily overheat without a way to get rid of it. Their large ears provide just one method of doing this.
#5 The largest terrestrial animal
Elephants are the largest extant land animal, and usually grow to a heavy 7,000 kilograms (15,400 pounds) and four meters tall (13 feet).
#6 Not much of a jumper
Elephants are the only mammal that can’t jump!
Perhaps this is due to their large size, or perhaps the ability to jump has simply been lost during the evolutionary process.
#7 Ears of a giant
A pair of ears from a bull elephant can weigh more than a person, or around 220 pounds (100 kilograms).
#8 Not only cats purr
Did you know that elephants purr in a similar manner to cats?
This is thought to be a method of communication or a way of expressing contentment.
#9 Heavy teeth
An elephant’s two largest teeth, usually known as tusks, can reach around 10 feet long (3 meters) and up to 200 pounds (90 kilograms) each. They are used for a number of things, including lifting, fighting, and digging for water.
Elephants also have four large molars, one in each corner of the mouth. Each of these is the size of a brick and can weigh more than 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms).
#10 Silent walkers
Due to their soft feet, elephants are able to walk almost silently – an incredible feat for an animal which weighs as much as a small truck!
#11 Matriarch families
Elephant form small family groups, usually containing around 10 members, which are ruled by a matriarch.
The matriarch is often the oldest and most experienced member of the family, and will rule until she no longer has the strength, at which time her eldest daughter will take over.
#12 Elephants are keystone species
Due to their unique role in shaping their ecosystem, elephants are often called “keystone species”, a term attributed to species that provide vital services to an ecosystem in relation to their abundance.
To appreciate how the majestic elephants of Africa and Asia fulfill this crucial role it is worth exploring in some detail the various services they provide to their natural habitat and other wildlife.
#13 Extraordinary sense for finding water in dry environments
Elephants can dig for water using their tusks. In this way, they can survive in relatively dry environments which suffer frequently from droughts.
By digging for water, elephants also make this precious resource available to other animals helping local biodiversity flourish. They create waterholes large enough for them to bathe and can smell water from five kilometers away .
#14 Elephant presence is vital for other wildlife
The savannah landscape would look very different without elephants. This is because African elephants feed on tree sprouts and shrubs that help keep African plains open and create grazing habitats for dozens of grassland species. When elephants move on, the savannah grows into scrubs and then once more it becomes woodland.
More generally, the eating habits of elephants create gaps in the vegetation of otherwise dense woodlands. These gaps facilitate the growth of other plants which provide food for different species and create pathways for a range of other animals to use, such as gorillas, forest hog, bush pig, bongo, buffalo and duiker.
By reaching and tearing high branches of trees such as acacia trees, elephants also create food sources for other animals. When elephants almost stand on their tip toes to get to the high branches of acacia trees, the movement makes bean-like pods fall from the tree which then become food sources for warthogs, kudu and baboons.
#15 Dexterous gardeners
Perhaps most surprisingly, elephants greatly contribute to dispersing seeds. African forest elephants are considered the most effective seed dispersers compared to any other African forest animal. This is both because of the amount of intact seeds they can disperse but also because of the great distances they can disperse those seeds.
More precisely, elephants can disperse seeds at distances over 57 kilometers, whereas most animals can only do so for a few hundred meters away from the source.
What is more, some plant species depend entirely on elephants for their dispersal. One such example is the seeds of a plant called ‘Balanites Wilson’ found in Uganda, which only savannah elephants can consume and subsequently disperse .
#16 Elephant dung is not waste but treasure
While elephant dung is another way in which elephants can help disperse seeds, their dung is important in many other ways for the habitat. Elephant dung is very rich in minerals and fiber as only about 50 percent of what elephants eat is actually digested. Elephant dung is therefore a great fertilizer and extremely important for maintaining nutrient-rich soils .
Given how rich elephant dung is, it also constitutes a source of food for other species. Species include ground hornbills, banded mongooses, vervet monkeys, baboons and many insect species. Unsurprisingly, elephant dung is of particular importance to dung beetles, which use it as a food supply for their larvae. In turn, this becomes a food source for honey badgers which dig up the dung and feed off the grubs.
It has also been suggested that the dung itself provides a habitat for several species, such as beetles, ants, centipedes, millipedes, scorpions, crickets, spiders and termites, but it was recently discovered that in Sri Lanka three species of frog also reside in dung. The exact reason why frogs live in the dung is unclear but experts believe it is linked to the fact that the dung provides good shelter and a good source of food given the abundances of invertebrates living there.
If reading this has inspired you to learn more about this wonderful creature, then consider joining an elephant conservation group and helping to protect them for future generations to enjoy!