Elephant Anatomy  
Anatomy Humans & the Elephant Myths Personality & Behavior Mystery

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  • Back Smooth and Solid Like a Wall (see info...)
    The largest land animal in the world

    Elephant and Baby

    African Elephants, the largest of the three varieties, can reach 13 feet tall, 13-16 ft long, and weigh on average 4.5-8 tons; they can weigh up to 11 tons. Asian Elephants reach up to 11 ft in length, 8 feet tall, and 2-5.5 tons.
    Fresh Elephant Dung

    Skin Texture
    The rare African Forest Elephant (sometimes considered a subspecies of the African Elephant) is the smallest of the three species averaging 10-13 ft in length, 6-8 ft tall, and weighing in at only 1-3 tons. Females (cows) are smaller than the males (bulls) in all species.

    To support their bulk elephants eat prodigious amounts of bark, leaves, branches, grass, and for the Forest Elephant: fruit. Like many large animals, their digestive system is very inefficient and they leave behind large amounts of nutrients and seeds in their dung which allows for many other creatures to get an easy meal and for plants to get a good head start surrounded by fertilizer. Some species of tree are exclusively planted along elephant trails making these giants accidental farmers.

    Pachyderm—thick-skinned—is somewhat of a misnomer, for while their skin is quite wrinkly and looks formidable, mosquitoes and other biting insects that plague humans are perfectly able to bite into these giants and sunburn can be a problem. This is why elephants from different areas often seem differently colored: they pick up their hue by taking mud- and dust-baths in whatever dirt they can find, thus creating a layer of sunscreen and bug-block all at once.

  • Trunk Like a Giant Snake (see info...)
    The remarkably versatile trunk


    Tens of thousands of muscles work together to allow the trunk to move smoothly and gracefully while twisting in all directions. It takes baby elephants a long time to master the technique and they are often seen running with their trunk flapping about. Luckily, mother's milk only requires a mouth to drink and as long as the babies can get that pesky appendage over their heads out of the way, they have plenty to eat until they can pick up grass and twigs on their own.

    FingersAsian elephants have one "finger" at the end of its trunk while African elephants have two. Both types work exactly the same way. The fingers allow for precision which would otherwise be lacking in a massively powerful appendage such as a trunk. The fingers can pick a single blade of grass just as the bulk of the trunk can pluck an entire sapling.

    SnorkelTrunks are always on the move and are astounding multitaskers. Drinking, smelling, eating, interacting, investigating, bathing, and more would all be impossible without one. To drink, and elephant uses its combination upper-lip/nose to suck in 10 pints of water which it then blows back out into its mouth. So sensitive is the olfactory sense provided by the organ that water can be smelled from over a mile away. All food, except for the milk for babies, is gathered by the trunk and fed into the mouth. Hugging, disciplining, playing, supporting, all kinds of modes of interaction are performed with the trunk. While the elephant's eyesight is poor, it compensates by investigating its surroundings with the highly sensitive tip of its nose and the hairs running alongside. The trunk can be used like a blind person's cane and fingertips together and can perceive far more about an object than we vision-centered beings can imagine. All-important skin care is provided by the showers and dust-baths that the trunk makes possible. Some aspect of all of our 5 senses is carried out in the elephant by its trunk.

    The trunk can even be used as a snorkel for swimming. And can help in communication by adding resonance to trumpeting cries.

  • Tusks Sharp and Deadly as a Spear (see info...)
    Much sought-after tusks


    FightingIvory is a remarkable substance: strong and soft, it allows artists to carve extreme detail without breaking. For the elephant the oversized incisors serve as levers, digging tools and indeed, weapons.

    Both male and female African Elephants carry tusks while only bull Asian Elephants do. Those of the Forest Elephant are needed to move obstacles out of the way continually and thus are stronger, and point more directly downward than the impressive arc of an African Elephant's. The Forest Elephant's tusks also tend to be smaller so that they don't get in the way. These teeth grow continually throughout the full 60-year lifespan reaching and average of 110-175 lbs each for an aged African bull and a paltry by comparison 40-44 lbs each for an African cow. There have been elephants with tusks weighing in at 200+ lbs and several individuals with only one or with several tusks. A Ugandan elephant was once discovered with 5 tusks on one side and 8 on the other!

    Pushing over treesJust as most humans are either right- or left-handed, an elephant will prefer one tusk over the other for the important tasks of digging for water or salt, loosening stubborn tree roots, prying off bark, fighting for supremacy or against foolish predators looking for young enough babies to handle, and sometimes, after a long day, supporting a weary trunk.

    How can these animals support the weight of such fantastic teeth? It helps that their massive heads are not solid bone but rather filled with air cavities.

  • Legs An Extremely Large Cow (see info...)
    Columnar legs


    FeetTo support such a vast bulk, pillar-like legs must be sturdy, flexible, and well cushioned. For all that they are massive supports, an x-ray of the elephant's leg shows them to be daintily walking on tiptoe. To absorb the impact of each step, the heel is filled with fatty tissue which spreads out, increasing the surface area that comes in contact with the ground. This helps them walk in marshy terrain just as snowshoes help humans walk without sinking into deep snow.

    Because they are so massive, the feet act as wonderfully powerful paddles when an elephant swims. Their buoyancy allows them to float near to the surface, their trunk allows them to breathe while mostly submerged, their large and powerful legs and feet can propel them for up to 30 miles, making them some of the best long-distance swimmers of all land animals.

    Their powerful legs also allow them to run with shocking swiftness: elephants have been clocked at 25 miles per hour, something which is difficult for humans to keep pace with.

    Climbing uphill is no problem for elephants for the same reason it is no problem for humans: our knees bend and flex to a remarkable degree. Unfortunately for them, coming back down poses a challenge. The strain of putting the weight of their massive heads far over their front legs alone is often too much so they slide downhill whenever they can.

  • Ear A Huge Fan or Maybe a Magic Carpet (see info...)
    Enormous ears


    African EarAn easy way to tell the difference between an Asian and African Elephant is by the relative size of their ears. The African Elephant, needing to cool off much more urgently than its cousins, has huge flapping air-conditioners on either side of its head. An intricate network of blood vessels lies just under the skin in the ears which have a surface area equivalent to 1/6th of the rest of its body's. When wet or flapping, the ears of all species can release prodigious amounts of body heat into the air.

    If the size of the ears isn't enough to give it away, the shape of an African Elephant's ears is uncannily like that of their home continent.

    The size of the outer, visible parts of the ear does not do anything for an elephant's ability to hear. Luckily, its hearing is far better than its sight. With their massive bodies, elephants are able to produce incredibly low tones which have such long wavelengths that they can make the very air vibrate. These frequencies are similar to those used by whales and can travel tremendously far through the air and ground just as the shockwaves of earthquakes do.

    When an elephant wants to look threatening to warn off predators or rivals, it makes itself look bigger just as survival manuals often suggest to humans. Where we need to rely on opening up a coat to look larger, the elephant need only hold out its ears to put on an impressive display.

  • Tail A Piece of Old Rope (see info...)
    A tail With few uses


    Tail CloseupHorses can swat at flies, monkeys can swing from branches, peacocks can impress potential mates, but elephants have little use for their tails. Mostly hairless but for a tuft at the end which serves as a good chew toy for infants, the tail of an adult African or Asian Elephant is 3-5 ft long; that of a Forest Elephant is 2.5-4 ft. For an elephant, a fan made from branches and wielded by the trunk is better at harassing insects than the tail could ever be.

    People have used elephant tails as adornments signifying love or status. But elephants who have lost theirs have no trouble with either. Sometimes they will use their tails to check on what, or who, is behind them or little ones will grab onto an adult's tail with it's trunk to make sure to stick close.

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