From cave paintings of the wooly mammoth and mastadon (close relatives) to the ancient menageries and war elephants of Egypt, China, Greece and Rome, to the modern pages of National Geographic to the animated Disney classic Dumbo, these fascinating creatures have delighted and terrified people through the ages.
Elephants are the earth’s largest mammals. The two recognized species are the African and Asian (AKA Indian) elephant, and they are both considered vulnerable or endangered due to serious declines in population over the past 60-70 years. The main difference between the species lies in their size and eating habits. While both are herbivores, the African elephants are largely browsers, feeding off of leaves, shoots and fruits growing high off the ground. Asian elephants tend to be grazers, feeding off grasses and low vegetation.
Physically, the African elephant is larger than its Asian counterpart. African elephants stand anywhere from 10 – 13 feet high and weigh between 8,800 and 15,400 pounds. Asian elephants stand from 7 – 11 feet high and weight between 6,600 and 11,000 pounds. In both species, males (bulls) are larger than females (cows). African elephants also have 21 pairs of ribs compared to 19-20 in the Asian variety, and there are other physical differences found in their tusks, pigmentation, wrinkles, toenails and humps/no humps on the forehead.
Studies of elephant behavior show that elephants are self-aware, and they also form close relationships. While scientists debate the depth of awareness, elephants also demonstrate a wide range of emotions like happiness, sadness, grief, loneliness, and anger. They cry when they are upset, and trumpet when they are happy. Elephants kept isolated from others (usually in zoos) often become depressed. Signs of depression include repetitive movements like rocking or swaying back and forth.
Female elephants live in tightly knit herds or families led by a matriarch, usually the oldest female, plus two or three other females and their offspring. The matriarch role usually continues until the elephant’s death and then passes to the eldest daughter. Female groups will tend to interact with other family groups and during certain seasons of the year they will cluster together to form clans. Young elephants are all raised within this female-led group environment.
Once males are approaching maturity (around age 15), they begin to spend less time with their family group. Their female relatives begin to treat them more aggressively, and upon maturity, they eventually they leave for good. Male elephants live alone or in groups of other males. Groups are only found among African bush elephants, and these are led by the most dominant older male/bull. The older males work to control aggression in the younger males in order to prevent them from forming gangs that may challenge leadership.
Sadly, loss of habitats due to human development of lands traditionally occupied by elephants along with continued poaching and killing of the animals for their ivory tusks and feet have greatly decimated the population of both the African and Asian species. Only through careful conservation efforts and the support of humans will these beautiful animals survive the challenges of the modern world.
For more information, visit http://www.elephantconservation.org/
Interested in learning more about famous elephants in history?