Asian elephant

Elephants are the largest land animals. Many species of whales and some sharks are larger. There are three species: the African elephant, which ranges across much of sub-Sahara Africa; the forest elephant which lives in rain forests in Africa and the Asian elephant, which is found in South Asia, Southeast Asia and Indonesia. Scientists decided to make the forest elephant a separate species in the 2002 based on genetic differences.

Elephants are sometimes referred to as "pachyderms" (meaning "thick skinned"). A male elephant is called a bull. A female is called a cow. Young are called calves. A group is called a herd.

When asked why she loves studying elephants, elephant expert Cynthia Moss told the Los Angeles Times, “They are so interesting and intelligent and complex, and they have a very interesting social life. They're long-lived, therefore you can really get your teeth into a study of them.” [Source: Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times, July 19, 2010]

Books: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Elephants by S.K. Elfringham (Smithmark Publishers, 1997), Elephants" Majestic Creatures of the Wild edited by Jeheskei Shosani (Rodale Press, 1992); Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants by Katy Payner (Simon & Schuster, 1998).

Sources: Douglas Chadwick, National Geographic, May 1991 [←]; Katharine Payne, National Geographic, August 1989; Oria Douglas-Hamilton, National Geographic, November 1980; Eric Dinerstein, Smithsonian, September 1988;

Information: Elephant Research Foundation, 106 Hickory Grove Road, Bloomfield Hills, MI 48304.

History of Elephants

The ancestor of elephants, mammoths and mastodons was a pig-size animal with an upper lip like a tapir that lived about 55 million years ago. As these creatures evolved their heads got small and their upper lip became longer and more flexible until it became a trunk.

More than 250 species of elephants and elephant-like creatures have roamed the earth in the past. Ancestors of the elephant include the Moeritherum (a pig-like animal that lived 40 million to 30 million years ago), the Piomia (a pig-like animal with a long snout that lived 37 million to 28 million years ago), Deinotherium (an elephant-like animal with downward-hooking tusks that lived 24 million to 1.8 million years ago), the Primelephas (an animal that looked like a modern elephant and lived from 6.2 million to 5 million years ago).

African elephants and Asian elephants diverged from a common ancestor about 6 million years ago. They lived at the same time as American mastodons (who lived from 3.75 million to 11,500 years ago) and wooly mammoths (who lived from 400,000 to 3,900 years ago). Ancestors of elephants, such as mastodons and wooly mammoths, have been found all the continents except Antarctica and Australia. In 2009, a well-preserved, 200,000-year-old skeleton of a giant prehistoric elephant was found in Java, which itself was unusual in that bones usually decompose quickly in humid, tropical climates. The animal stood four meters tall and weighed more than 10 tons, which was closer in size to a wooly mammoth than a modern Asian elephants. Another Indonesian, Flores, was the home of stegodons---extinct elephant ancestors which were about the size of a cow, or about a tenth of the size of an Asian elephant.

The Asia elephant once ranged as far west as the Tigris and Euphrates region of Syria and Iraq and as far north as Manchuria in China. Based on mitochondrial DNA evidence, there are two main lineages of Asian elephants that split from each other about three million years ago. Most belong to the “alpha” lineage. Those in peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo belong to the “beta” lineage. For reasons that are not clear, Both lineages are found on Sri Lanka.

Asian Elephant Range and Numbers

Asian elephants are found in 13 countries The WWF estimates that there are only between 34,000 and 51,000 Asian elephants worldwide, including 12,000 to 16,000 animals that have either been domesticated in Asia or are in zoos around the world. By contrast, there are an estimated 550,000 elephants in Africa today (2003).

Wild Asian elephants are found in the forests and jungles of India, Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia and southeast Asia. Estimated wild elephant populations (1997): 1) India, 20,000-30,750; 2) Myanmar, 5,000 to 6,000; 3) Indonesia, 2,500 to 4,000 in Sumatra and a small number in Kalimantan; 4) Malaysia, 1,000 on the peninsula and 500 to 1,500 on Borneo; 5) Laos, 2,000 to 3,000; 6) Sri Lanka, 2,500 to 3,000; 7) Thailand, 1,300 to 2,000; 8) Cambodia, 1,000 to 2,000; 9) Vietnam, 500 to 1,500; 10) Nepal, 500 to 1,500; 11) Bangladesh, 200 to 350; 12) China, 150 to 300; and 13) Bhutan, 60 to 150. The biggest unknown as far as Asian elephants are concerned is Burma where estimates range from 3,000-10,000 animals.←

Domesticated elephant populations (1997): 1) Myanmar (5,000); 2) Thailand (4,000); 3) India (3,000); 4) Laos; 5) Sri Lanka; 6) Cambodia; 7) Vietnam; 8) Nepal.

There are about 750,000 elephants worldwide. In 1930 is the believed there were between five million to ten million elephants. After their numbers have steadily declined. In the late 1980s and early 1990s their numbers were than halved, primarily due to ivory poaching. To make surveys of elephant populations scientist fly back and forth over an area and count all the elephants they see. They then extrapolate this data to come up with a number for the whole area.∈

Difference Between Asian Elephants and African Elephants

Asian elephants have an arched back, two watermelon-size humps on their forehead, relatively small tusks, four toes on their front feet, smoother skin, relatively small ears that fold forward and are shaped like India, and a single finger-like protuberance at the tip of their trunk. Only males have tusks.

Adult male Asian elephants weigh up to four tons and stand 9 to 10½ feet tall at the shoulder, and females weigh as much 3.3 tons. The largest Asian elephant was an animal found in Nepal named Tula hatti ("the great elephant") that stood 11 feet at the shoulder and had a foot print that measured 22 inches across. Their mellow temperament allows them to be trained for entertainment in circuses and heavy labor such as lifting logs onto trucks and pulling them through the forest.

Asian elephants often have patches of white skin on their trunks and ears but it is often difficult to see them and tell the true color of an Asian elephant because after they bath they use their trunks to cover themselves with dirt. The elephants od this to suffocate pests and fool of their skin, much the same way a woman powders her skin after a bath.

African elephants have darker skin, large tusks, a smooth forehead, a dip in their back, five toes on their front feet, large ears that fold backward over the shoulder, and two finger-like protuberances at the tip of their trunk. Both male and females have tusks.

Adult male African elephants weigh up to six tons and stand 11 feet tall at the shoulder, and females weigh as much four tons. Bush elephants live in most countries south of the Saharan and forest elephants live Cameroon, Congo, Ivory Coast and other central and west African nations. African elephants are more difficult to tame than Asian elephants although some have been trained for circus and as mounts for tourists in southern Africa.

African and Asian elephants are different enough that they can not can not produce offspring. By contrast, lions and tigers can produce offspring if they mate.

Elephant Age

African Elephant

On average an Asian elephants lives to be around 40 or 50. Their life cycle closely parallels that of humans. They reach sexual maturity at the age of 11 to 14, reach full growth at around 30, and die around 50 or 60 in captivity (they die sooner in the wild which is a less forgiving environment for old elephants). Scientists measure their age by measuring the size of their footprints.

The oldest verified age of a mammal other than human is 78 years, by a female Asian elephant that died in a zoo in Santa Clara, California in July 1975. Whales are believed to live longer but it is difficult to verify their age.

Interestingly the number heartbeats on the life of an elephant is approximately equal to the number heartbeats on the life of a shrew. An elephant’s heart beats about 20 times a minute while the heart of a shrew, which lives only one or two years, is around 600 beats a second.

Elephants live longer in wild than zoos according to a study published in Science in December 2008. Randolph E. Schmid of AP wrote: “Researchers compared the life spans of elephants in European zoos with those living in Amboseli National Park in Kenya and others working on a timber enterprise in Myanmar. Animals in the wild or in natural working conditions had life spans twice that or more of their relatives in zoos. [Source: Randolph E. Schmid, AP, December 11, 2008]

The researchers found that the median life span for African elephants in European zoos was 16.9 years, compared with 56 years for elephants who died of natural causes in Kenya's Amboseli park. Adding in those elephants killed by people in Africa lowered the median life span there to 35.9 years. Median means half died younger than that age and half lived longer. For the more endangered Asian elephants, the median life span in European zoos was 18.9 years, compared with 41.7 years for those working in the Myanmar Timber Enterprise. Myanmar is the country formerly known as Burma.

Elephant Characteristics

elephant heart, 20 to 30 kilograms

A running elephant reach speeds of 25 miles per hour (compared to 70 mph for a cheetah and 27.9 mph for the world's fastest human). A charging elephant can reportedly maintain a 35 miles per hour pace for 120 yards. A trotting elephant can maintain speeds exceeding 18 miles-per-hour for more than a kilometer. Elephants move 15 to 20 miles a day. The movement keeps their nails trimmed. Captive animals have to have their nails filed.

Elephants have wrinkled inch-thick skin but lack sweat glands. To keep cool elephants they flap their well veined ears and seek water for relief. When severely overheated elephants may draw water from their throats or stomachs and spray their ears. Mosquitos have no trouble penetrating the skin of elephants.

Elephants have a low heart rate, about 20 to 30 beats a minute. This allows them to do relatively strenuous exercise for long periods of time. For their size, elephants have fairly small muscles. Some scientists are studying this relationship because it makes them analogous to obese humans or people with weak or paralysed muscles.

Elephants have huge calloused footpads. They can walk very carefully and are remarkably light on their feet and walk noiselessly at 4mph. They can also balance on balls, play catch, and dance. Elephants can't hop, jump or gallop and they are afraid of steep places because they hurt themselves severely if they fall.

In 2011 it was revealed that elephants have sixth 'toes.' AFP reported: “A bony growth in elephants' feet is a sixth "toe" that helps the world's heaviest land mammal keep its balance, scientists said. The growth protruding from the back of elephant's feet was discovered in the 18th century when a Scottish surgeon dissected one of the creatures for the first time.Researchers had been baffled by the piece of bone but a new study in the US journal Science claims to have solved the mystery. While not a true toe, the growth has developed the same function as a toe, giving the behemoths much-needed help in supporting their colossal weight as they lumber across African plains and through Asian jungles. [Source: AFP, December 23, 2011]

"It is performing the function of a toe in supporting the elephant's weight," lead author Professor John Hutchinson, of Britain's Royal Veterinary College, told BBC radio. "It is a little weird piece of bone that has been elongated during evolution into quite a long piece of bone." The researchers used techniques including X-rays, dissection and an electron microscopy in their study. [Ibid]

“The elephant's five conventional toes point forwards but the extra "toe" points backwards to give extra support. A similar phenomenon can also be observed in pandas and moles, according to scientists. A panda's "sixth finger" helps it to grip bamboo, while the extra digit helps moles to dig. The researchers studied elephant fossils to discover when the bone first appeared and believe it was around 40 million years ago, as elephants got bigger and became more land-based. [Ibid]

Elephant Ears and Tusks

An elephant’s large ears help it keep cool and pick up low-frequency sounds (see Below). Asian elephant are thought to have developed smaller eas because they spend most of their time in relatively cool, shaded forests while many African elephants spend their time in hotter, open country and need larger ears to help stay cool. Thermal photographic images of African elephants at night show their ears are noticeably cooler than the rest of their bodies. Ears vary so much from elephant to elephant they can be used to identify individuals.

Elephants have an acute sense of smell and very long eyelashes. Their eyesight is poor, which allows people to approach them if they are very quiet.

Tusks are hollow upper incisors used by elephants to move and lift objects and male elephants to fight. Ivory is the white dentin of which tusks are made. The largest tusks weigh as much as a man and measure twice as long. Asian elephants tusks are considerably smaller than the ones on African elephants. Tusks grow continuously; an adult male's tusks grow about 18 cm (7 in) a year. The tusk cavity of one Asian elephant still hadn’t healed 16 years after it was hacked off by poachers.

Tusks are used to dig for food and water, to dig up trees and branches and move them around, for self defence and for sexual display. In males, tusks are often used to intimidate other males, and sometimes in fighting for mates. Those with the biggest tusks are usually the most successful.

Elephant Tusks Getting Smaller Because of Poaching and Evolution

Asian elephant in Cambodia in 1903

Richard Gray wrote in The Telegraph, “Elephants are evolving smaller tusks due to pressure from hunting and poaching for ivory, according to conservation experts. The average tusk size of African elephants has halved since the mid-19th century. A similar effect has been spotted in the Asian elephant population in India. Researchers say it is an example of Darwinism in action, caused by the mass slaughter of dominant male elephants - but whereas evolution normally takes place over thousands of years, these changes have occurred within 150 years. [Source: Richard Gray, The Telegraph, January 20, 2008]

Zoologists at Oxford University fear that poaching and hunting of the largest male elephants, which also have the largest tusks, has changed the natural breeding behaviour of these animals. Their research has shown that the hunting of these large males for their ivory allows smaller males with shorter tusks to produce more calves. Over time the average tusk size decreases.

Iain Douglas Hamilton, from the conservation charity Save the Elephants and who was one of the authors of the study, said: "What appears to be the case is that average tusk sizes have decreased greatly since the mid-19th century. The data comes from the trade statistics and from records of hunters around Africa who find that large trophies are very much harder to find. "While some of this may be due to an absence of older animals, it is possible there has been a genetic selection pressure against large tusk size that outweighs their usefulness in contests with other males in winning females."

In males, tusks are often used to intimidate other males, and sometimes in fighting for mates. Those with the biggest tusks are usually the most successful. But the ivory of large African elephants is particularly prized by hunters and traders for its quality and this has seen hundreds of thousands of animals killed.

More Tuskless Elephants

An increasing number of elephants have no tusks, according to a survey. Research at the Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda, showed that 15 percent of female elephants and 9 percent of males in the park were born without tusks. In 1930 the figure for both male and female elephants was only 1 percent. They say elephants are losing their tusks as a rapid and effective evolutionary response to escape slaughter by ruthless and resourceful poachers who kill elephants for their ivory trophies. [Source: BBC, September 25, 1998]

The BBC's Science Correspondent, John Newell, says the continuing change shows how rapidly evolution can react in response to pressures that threaten the survival of a species. This allows them to live, breed more freely and produce more offspring without tusks. Evidence of a trend in tuskless elephants has been reported elsewhere. Mark and Delia Owens recorded an unusual number of such elephants in 1997 while carrying out research in Zambia's North Luangwa National Park. Published on the National Wildlife Federation's Website, they write: "Our research indicates that more than 38 percent of Luangwa elephants carry no tusks. "Other researchers have reported that in natural, unstressed populations, only 2 percent of the animals are tuskless."

In 2005, Reuters reported; “Chinese elephants are evolving into an increasingly tuskless breed because poaching is changing the gene pool, a newspaper reported. Five to 10 percent of Asian elephants in now had a gene that prevented the development of tusks, up from the usual 2 to 5 percent, the China Daily said, quoting research from Beijing Normal University . "The larger tusks the male elephant has, the more likely it will be shot by poachers," said researcher Zhang Li, an associate professor of zoology. "Therefore, the ones without tusks survive, preserving the tuskless gene in the species." Since only male elephants have tusks, there were now four female elephants for each male in , up from the ideal ratio of two, the paper said. [Source: Reuters, July 19. 2005]

Elephant Trunks

Asian trunk

An elephant's trunk is an upper lip and nose joined together with two hose-like nostrils running its entire length. There are over 50,000 individual muscles and a complex network of blood vessels and nerves in an elephant's trunk. The end of the trunk is covered with sensory hairs that feel the shape, texture and temperature of things. Elephants do most of their breathing through their trunks and have extremely strong senses of smell. [Source: Jeheskel Shoshani, Natural History, November 1997]

According to a Rudyard Kipling story, elephants acquired their trunks one day when a crocodile grabbed on to a short-nosed elephant and kept pulling and pulling. An elephant using it trunk and standing on its hind legs can reach objects that are 40 feet off the ground.

Elephants are so dexterous with their trunks they have been observed picking up a dime off a concrete floor. Young elephants have to learn to use their trunks. Those that haven't yet mastered their trunks, steep on them, flail them about without control,

Trunk Uses

African trunk

Elephants use their trunks to pick up things, drink, reach food over their head, bring food to their mouths, dig wells, root for tubers, spray water and dust, greet other elephants and chase other animals away. Lame elephants sometimes use their trunks as crutches.

Adult elephants drink by siphoning water into their trunk, taking in as much as a 2.7 gallons at one time, and then squirting it into their mouths. Elephants drinking in this way have been observed drinking16 gallons in 83 seconds and 56 gallons in five minutes. Only young elephants drink water from a water hole with their mouth. Elephants also use their trunks to spray their bodies or the bodies of other elephants with water.

Some elephants use their trunks as snorkela when the go swimming and have been observed using them as snorkels in mud pits. Young elephants learning to spray themselves with water miss as often as they hit. One young elephant that was just learning how to do this kept getting his trunk stuck in the riverbed.

See Social Behavior

Elephant Movement and Their Walk-like Run

In the wild, elephants roam as much as 30 miles a day. Mostly they get around by walking with some scientists even going as far as saying they are incapable of running even when moving at top speed. Scientists studying elephant movement now say when Asian elephants move fast they do not just walk fast, but they don’t quite run either. They do something in between them that leans sort of the running side. "It is certainly more than just walking," John Hutchinson of Stanford University in California told New Scientist. "It may be running, but I want to be cautious." [Source:Philip Cohen, New Scientist, April 2, 2003]

chargin Asian elephant

Philip Cohen wrote in the New Scientist, “To study the fast motion of elephants, Hutchinson and his colleagues in the US and Thailand performed intricate biomechanical video analysis of Asian elephants. The work may overturn the long held belief that elephants do not run, and could also give insights into the movements of other large animals, including dinosaurs. Robert Full, of University of California, Berkeley, says the work is important. "We know very little about the biomechanics of large animals," he says. "Here's a hint there's definitely something unusual going on. I can't wait to see the next study."

When many quadrupeds reach their top speed, all their limbs leave the ground during part of their gait. So one definition of the transition between walking and running is when the footfall pattern becomes partially "aerial". A biomechanical definition of running requires a gait where the centre of gravity of an animal moves up and down in a pogo stick-like motion.

Hutchinson's team videotaped 42 healthy, active animals whose joints had been painted with white dots, to make their movements easier to follow. To encourage the elephants acceleration, the researchers cheered the animals on, gave them food rewards, had them race their trainer or put a friendly elephant at the finish line. The results were surprising in a number of ways. The elephants' top sustained speed of 25 kilometres per hour (16 mph) is fast enough, in theory, to launch the animals into an aerial gate. But the animals always kept three feet on the ground and used the same four-step gait as when they were walking slowly.

However video analysis of the hip joint hinted that elephants do run, in a biomechanical sense. The hind limb appeared to move downwards in the middle of the stride and then upwards, a characteristic of running. That would have settled the question, except that analysis of the shoulder spot showed it moved upwards and then downwards - the biomechanical signature of walking.

While that makes an elephant gait very unusual, Hutchinson speculates that it is a variation of the "Groucho gait", named after the crouched stride of the comic actor Groucho Marx. Avoiding an aerial phase could be important for a large animal, says Hutchinson: "They wouldn't have to endure the shock of leaving the ground and falling back down." The only definitive test is to measure the force an elephant exerts on the ground at different speeds, to directly measure the extra force a running, pogo stick-like motion should create. Hutchinson and his colleagues are now designing an appropriate force platform. "The ones we have would break if an elephant moving at even moderate speed stepped on them," he notes.

Elephants Live Longer in Wild than Zoos

Elephants live longer in wild than zoos according to a study published in Science in December 2008. Randolph E. Schmid of AP wrote: “Researchers compared the life spans of elephants in European zoos with those living in Amboseli National Park in Kenya and others working on a timber enterprise in Myanmar. Animals in the wild or in natural working conditions had life spans twice that or more of their relatives in zoos. [Source: Randolph E. Schmid, AP, December 11, 2008]

The researchers found that the median life span for African elephants in European zoos was 16.9 years, compared with 56 years for elephants who died of natural causes in Kenya's Amboseli park. Adding in those elephants killed by people in Africa lowered the median life span there to 35.9 years. Median means half died younger than that age and half lived longer. For the more endangered Asian elephants, the median life span in European zoos was 18.9 years, compared with 41.7 years for those working in the Myanmar Timber Enterprise. Myanmar is the country formerly known as Burma.

The life spans of zoo elephants have improved in recent years, suggesting an improvement in their care and raising, said one of the report's authors, Georgia J. Mason of the animal sciences department at the University of Guelph, Canada. But, she added, "protecting elephants in Africa and Asia is far more successful than protecting them in Western zoos." "One of our more amazing results" was that Asian elephants born in zoos have shorter life spans than do Asian elephants brought to the zoos from the wild, she added in a broadcast interview provided by the journal Science, which published the results in its Friday edition.

She noted that zoos usually lack have large grazing areas that elephants are used to in the wild, and that zoo animals often are alone or with one or two other unrelated animals, while in the wild they tend to live in related groups of eight to 12 animals. In Asian elephants, infant mortality rates are two times to three times higher in zoos than in the Burmese logging camps, Mason said. And then, in adulthood, zoo-born animals die prematurely. "We're not sure why," she said.

The study confirms many of the findings of a similar 2002 analysis prepared by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. One of the authors of the new study, Ros Clubb, works for the society. Steven Feldman, a spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, contended the report did not reflect conditions in North America. In addition, he said, it is hard to compare conditions in zoos and in the wild. "Every event in a zoo is observed," he said, while scientists can study only a small number of events in nature.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2012

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