Elephants are among the brightest and best-loved creatures. I can’t help but feel that besides from safeguarding their habitats and studying them, humans should stay away from elephants. They’ve been used to transport royals, to hunt tigers, perform in circuses and even to execute prisoners underfoot. Grisly.

They crop up in stories from Walt Disney’s Dumbo to Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar to Dr Seuss’ endearing Horton. In Rudyard Kipling, the crocodile famously stretched the elephant child’s nose to its present length.

Trunk

The elephant’s trunk has over forty thousand muscles in it. It is a fusion of the nose and upper lip. Two nostrils run through the trunk. It is quite tricky for elephants to drink with their mouths, so they must suck water into their trunk, then blow it into their mouth.

Baby elephants suck their trunks, just like human babies sucking their thumbs. They sometimes step on their own trunks. But they quickly learn to use this versatile organ. Babies take their mother’s milk directly into their mouth, not via their trunk. The trunk can get rather heavy, so an elephant might drape it over their tusk.

The trunk is a handy snorkel. It can pick up a single blade of grass, and it can uproot a tree. Familiar elephants greet each other by entwining trunks, like a handshake. A raised trunk can be a sign of warning. It is used to deter smaller creatures, or to grasp and fling them away.

An Asian’s trunk has a single finger-like projection at its tip which its uses to scoop and hold objects, whereas the African has two ‘fingers’ with which it can grasp things. The trunk tip is more sensitive than any other living tissue.

When an elephant holds his trunk up it is a gesture of aggression, usually a bluff. When he rolls his trunk under his chin, it means he is about to charge.

Tusks

Tusks are teeth: they grow from the second upper incisors. With African savannah elephants, both males and females have large tusks. With Asians, only males have notable tusks. Just as humans are left- or right-handed, elephants are left- or right-tusked. You can spot the master tusk: it’s shorter and more rounded at the tip from wear.

Tusks erupt at 16 months and are visible at 30 months. When the tusks reach 5 or 6 inches, they disturb the mother and she weans the calf, at age 5 or 6.

Elephants could live a lot longer but for their teeth. Over time their teeth move horizontally along the gum, unlike our (human) vertically-moving teeth. New teeth appear at the back of the mouth, pushing older ones to the front.

The teeth wear down with use and the remains fall out. As they get old all their teeth eventually go and they starve and die.

There is a gene for tusklessness. Ivory hunting has meant tuskless elephants have a much higher chance of mating. The propagation of the tuskless gene has meant tuskless elephants are approaching 30% of some populations.

With continued ivory hunting, it is not unfeasible to imagine a future in which tusks are selected against to the point of their disappearance. Tusk use, such as digging for salt, tearing through vegetation and sparring for mating rights, will be gone.

Sentience

Elephant intelligence is on a par with cetaceans and primates. They are one of very few species to recognise themselves in a mirror, along with humans, apes, bottlenose dolphins and magpies. Besides self-awareness, they show grief, altruism, artistry, music-making, play and compassion.

Elephants use tools. They practice allomothering, which means individuals other than the mother look after the young. They communicate to friends over kilometres by rumbling. These sounds are too low-frequency (5Hz) for humans to hear, but elephants pick them up via low-frequency receptors in their feet and trunk.

When family groups meet at a watering hole, they exchange affectionate greetings. When they meet an elephant they haven’t seen for a long time, they have welcome ceremonies.

Anatomy

Ellies are powerful enough to crush and gore a rhinoceros to death. They have fantastic hearing and smell, not surprising given the size of those respective organs. Their eyesight however is rubbish, since their eyes aim down the trunk.

Elephants’ skin, despite being an inch thick, is quite sensitive, so they squirt mud onto their backs to act as sunscreen, which also deters biting insects. The mud is why Africans look brown or reddish, since their skin is greyish.

Lifestyle

Beneath the foot bone is a gelatinous material that acts as a shock absorber. Under the elephant’s weight the foot swells and when weight is lifted it narrows. This means that elephants can wallow in deep mud and easily pull their legs out.

They love mud and water, probably because that’s where they came from. A proto-elephant ancestor that lived 37 million years ago was aquatic and lived like a hippopotamus.

Of course, elephants swimming is one of the great pleasures of nature, but they cannot trot, jump or gallop. Although they can reach speeds of 25mph (Usain Bolt on a good day: 20mph), they always keep at least one foot on the ground. Other animals of comparable leg length are well into a gallop by that speed.

They spend 16 hours a day collecting food. They only digest 40% of what they eat. An adult can eat 140-270kg of food a day. Elephant foraging has a big impact on their ecosystem. They break off branches, pull down entire trees and pull up roots. This creates clearings for new vegetation to grow. They dig into dry river beds to reach water, which is handy for the ecosystem since this may be the only source of water in an area.

The pathways they clear through forests can be used for generations and allow other animals and people to move. Elephants need large tracts of land to live in because they destroy a lot of vegetation and cycle back after an area has regrown.

Society

Their social groups are based on tightly-knit families of females, with the males off by themselves or on the fringes of the groups. The herd is led by a matriarch. Only dominant males are able to breed.

Pregnancy is 22 months- longer than any other animal. Most elephant behaviour is learned, so juveniles stay with their mothers a long time. Males leave the herd aged 14 and either join a bachelor group or live a solitary life.

Despite their image as gentle giants, in musth season (‘musth’ is Hindi for madness) the bulls get very aggressive and fight almost any other males they encounter. They experience bouts of rage and regularly overrun villages and kill people.

Elephants do have long memories, remembering where to find food and water. This knowledge is passed down generations. They are fascinated by the bones of dead elephants, often examining them.

Species

The African is the largest living land mammal. Their ears look like the map of Africa. The Asian elephant is smaller and can be domesticated.

Besides the savannah elephant and the Asian elephant, there is a third, shyer species. The forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclosis) lives only in central west Africa. Its long, straight, pinkish tusks are unfortunately highly prized by ivory traders. It lives in dense forest, so is rarely seen by man.

Humans

Elephants were first domesticated in the Indus Valley civilisation. Male elephants have been used in war in India, China, Persia, Hellenist empires and Carthage. They are still used as work animals today. They are important in logging in South East Asia.

Because of their great bulk adult ellies have no predators, except some nasty humans, though calves may fall prey to big cats and crocodiles. Like the elephant child in Kipling’s Just-So story, calves have to be very careful on the banks of the great, grey-green greasy Limpopo River.

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