Fun And Interesting Elephant Facts For Kids
Elephants have the largest brain, love to hug, can recognise themselves in mirrors and mourn the death of their near ones. Read on for more such interesting facts about elephants.
By Subhechha Chatterjee
Elephants are a captivating sight — a long trunk, a big head with fan-like ears, strong tusks yet docile little eyes, a gigantic body with immense strength but a calm demeanour. They also possess the human-like attributes of affection and care which makes them a favourite of many.
These huge animals have existed for millions of years and evolved through many stages. And, just like their geographic distribution across the world, the term ‘elephant’ too has come from multiple languages and places.
The origin of the word ‘Elephant’ can be traced to Latin and Greek. In Greek ‘elephos’ is used to refer to a horned beast. However, in Latin ‘ele’ means arch and ‘phant’ means gigantic. Thus, the terms, in combination, were used to refer to a beast that is huge and has a bulky, rounded appearance.
Elephant species and types
Under the class Mammalia, elephants belong to the order Proboscidea and family Elephantidae. The Genus depends on the type of elephants. There are mainly two types of elephants — the Asian elephant and the African elephant. The former belongs to the genus Elephas, while the latter belongs to the genus Loxodonta. Thus, African elephants are scientifically referred to as Loxodonta africana while Asian elephants are named Elephas maximus indicus; where africana and maximus are the species and indicus is the sub-species.
These terrestrial animals are closely related to hydraxes, dugongs and manatees. And, the order to which they belong— Proboscidea, apparently emerged from creatures that existed some 50-60 million years ago and resembled present-day pigs. Gradually, over the years, Proboscideans evolved to develop longer limbs and bigger skulls. Another unique characteristic of this family is the trunk, which too evolved with time.
The adult male elephant is often referred to as the Bull, while the adult female is called the Cow. The term used to refer to juveniles or young elephants is Calf.
Physical features of elephant
Elephant size and height
Among terrestrial animals, the African elephant is the largest, with adult males weighing up to 9,000kg. The average shoulder height of this elephant is about 4m.
The Asian elephant is slightly smaller in size, having an average weight of 5,500kg and an average height of 3.5m.
The elephant’s trunk
This is the most peculiar part of an elephant’s body. Structurally, it is an integration of the nose and the upper lip, with the tip having an opening for the nostrils.
The elephant’s trunk serves multiple functions. Made up of 16 muscles, the trunk weighs between 120 and 140kg. It is so strong that it can lift loads weighing up to 250kg. The trunk is also an extremely sensitive organ as it is innervated by two nerves. The flap-like tip of the trunk can also crack nuts or lift flat objects like coins from the ground with ease.
Apart from helping in carrying out essential functions like eating, drinking and breathing, elephants use the trunk to signal any form of threat or danger, greet each other and trumpet.
While both Asian and African elephants use their trunk for similar purposes, the technique of its usage varies slightly. African elephants use their trunk in a technique similar to ‘pinching’ to lift things, while Asian elephants roll their tusks around the object while lifting them, often resembling a tight ‘grasp.’ Also, the trunks of African elephants can elongate more while Asian elephants have trunks that are more deft.
The elephant’s tusks
An elephant’s tusks are extended incisors. They are present in both male and female African elephants and only in male Asian elephants. Depending on the use of its tusks, an elephant can be called right or left-tusked. The tusk which is used more is usually smaller than the other one because of the wear and tear.
An elephant uses its tusks to lift objects, rip apart barks of trees, dig holes in soil to access underground water as well as to attack and defend itself during fights.
The elephant’s ears
The huge fan-like ears of an elephant not only facilitate hearing but also help in regulating body temperature. The ears have a network of thin blood vessels and the skin of the ear is very thin. These enable easy dissipation of heat when an elephant’s body temperature increases. Moreover, elephants often flap their ears back and forth to generate breeze like a fan and cool themselves down.
African elephants have ears that are large enough to reach their neck while Asian elephants have relatively smaller ears.
The elephant’s eyes
Small eyes and long eyelashes ensure that an elephant’s eyes remain protected from dust and debris. Also, three eyelids, that is the upper and lower eyelid and the third eyelid (nictitating membrane) further protects the eyes from dust and water. The location of the elephant’s eyes on the sides of its head gives it the ability to have a peripheral view. However, an elephant’s eyesight ranges from moderate to poor.
The elephant’s skin
The wrinkled skin of an elephant helps keep its body cool. The wrinkles increase the surface area, which helps dissipate heat more easily while the folds trap moisture that take longer to evaporate, thus cooling the body further. And, to protect itself from the cold weather, the elephant has a layer of fat below its skin.
Although the elephant’s skin is thick and has a rubbery texture, it is still very sensitive to tactile stimuli and temperature changes.
Since African elephants live in hotter habitats, they have more wrinkled skin while their Asian counterparts have less wrinkles.
Nature/Temperament/Strength and Abilities
The elephant’s sleep pattern
Research on the elephant’s sleep pattern has found that it usually sleeps for about 2 – 3 hours. Also, elephants do not necessarily sleep by lying down, they can sleep even while standing and, at times, they may not even sleep for consecutive days. Their nap and sleep timings do not always coincide with sunset and sunrise.
These gigantic beasts sleep less because their dietary needs are very high and they have to spend a great deal of time foraging for food. Also, only when the hunger of an elephant is satiated, does its neural network give it a signal to rest or sleep.
The elephant’s walk and run
Many of us might think that due to their enormous size, elephants would be slow-moving creatures compared to other animals. However, in reality, an elephant can run at speeds of up to 40 km/h. When threatened or scared, elephants throw up a lot of dust with their feet and make a dash. They also tend to run shorter distances at a time. It is interesting to note that even though they run at such high speeds, one foot is always on the ground, suggesting that probably what appears to be a run is in fact a hasty walk.
How elephants protect themselves
Because of their size, healthy adult elephants do not have too many predators. But, weak or young elephants are sometimes targeted by carnivores like lions and crocodiles. In the case of an attack by an animal, elephants usually defend themselves with the help of their tusks or powerful trunks. They might even make loud trumpeting sounds to scare away the predator.
At present, humans are the greatest threat to elephants. They are killed for their tusks and their habitat is also encroached upon by humans.
The elephant’s habits and habitat
Elephants are nocturnal and diurnal, herbivorous animals who spend nearly 13 – 15 hours every day foraging for food. On an average, an adult elephant can consume about 270 – 300kg of food per day. They usually feed on twigs, leaves, bamboo, barks of trees and fruits. Also, elephants require between 75 – 150 litres of water for drinking and love to spend time in water to cool themselves.
Elephants are not territorial by nature, but since they live in herds, they need between 12 and 70sq km of area to fulfil their needs.
African elephants live in savannahs, tropical forests and grasslands, while Asian elephants are more commonly found in tropical forests. However, both species tend to migrate to more comfortable and favourable habitats as the summer season commences. They also leave trails behind during migration and tend to follow it every time they go back and forth.
Elephants and communication
Elephants have a complex and elaborate system of communication and expression. Studies by Elephant Researcher Joyce Poole suggest that elephants use over 70 different sounds and about 160 signals, movements and gestures to interact and convey their emotions and desires.
Elephant sounds or vocalisations can express feelings like hunger, affection for their loved ones, threat, acknowledgement, sorrow and seeking a mate. After a herd completes eating or grazing, one member would fans its ears to signal the end of the meal and to get moving again.
While many of us associate elephant sounds to that of trumpets and growls, it is interesting to note that elephants emit sounds even at extremely low frequency ranges. These can be heard by elephants who are miles away; however, these sounds are inaudible to humans. These ultra-low frequency sounds, also called ‘contact calls’, serve to attract mates, signal danger and reunite with lost herd members.
The role of vocalisation is very important when it comes to mating and subsequent breeding among elephants. Bulls send out a variety of signals, emit body odour, and sounds to attract females. Females too signal their willingness through a different set of sounds.
Elephants also engage in non-vocal forms of communication. They use their trunks to cuddle and embrace each other. They bow their heads as a mark of respect to mourn the death of a family member. A gesture analogous to the human version of ‘high-five’ in the elephant world is the act of intertwining trunks in a friendly manner.
Mother elephants and care of calves
When a female elephant goes into labour, she is surrounded by other females. Sometimes, even the entire herd acts as a support system and protects the mother from predators and threats.
A newborn calf weighs around 150kg and has a height of about 2.5 to 3 feet. Calves also have sparse hair on their body. They have a short trunk which helps them suckle. Calves also have the remarkable ability to stand up and walk on all fours within a couple of hours after birth.
Baby elephants drink about 10–12L of milk daily. By about 4 months of age, they begin exploring their surroundings with their trunks. They use the trunk to eat small amounts of grass and soft twigs. They completely wean off their mother’s milk by about 24 months of age.
African elephants usually have a lifespan of about 70 years while Asian elephants live up to the age of 50 years.
An elephant society or herd is primarily matriarchal in nature, led by the oldest and most dominant female. The immediate family unit includes her daughters and grand-daughters, while the extended herd may include other related females.
Males are usually part of discrete, unstable groups after they separate from the herd at the age of about 12 years.
The matriarchal family units are extremely close-knit groups. They engage in friendly interactions, participate collectively in the rearing of calves, enable the younger members of the unit to forage and search for food.
Usually family units range from 5 to a maximum of 30 members, but in certain areas like water holes or dense foliage, larger congregations extending up to 500 elephants can also be observed.
One unique behaviour of elephants is their ability to mourn. They have a peculiar way of paying homage to the dead by stopping and observing a moment of silence to express their solidarity. They do so usually when they chance upon elephant remains and touch them with their trunks as a mark of remembrance.
Elephant population and conservation
The estimated population of African elephants range between 4,50,000 and 6,50,000. Thus, they have been categorised as threatened species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The Asian elephant population stands between 25,600 and 32,750. They have been listed as endangered species by IUCN.
There are many elephant reserves around the world that are working towards protecting and conserving elephants. Some of the most famous elephant parks are:
- Elephant Nature Park, Thailand,
- Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, Malawi
- Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
- Periyar National Park, India
- Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa
- Sayaboury Elephant Conservation Centre, Laos
- Chobe National Park, Botswana
Along with these conservation parks, the World Wildlife Fund has also taken steps to reduce human-elephant conflicts caused by loss of property, human life or crop loss. The project focusses on educating the human community about the various steps that they can take to keep away from elephant habitat.
Some famous legal acts to check elephant poaching and ivory trade include:
The Wildlife Protection Act 1972: It aims to protect and conserve wildlife in India. Under this act, it is a punishable offence to hunt animals. It also bans the selling and trade of products derived from the enlisted flora and fauna.
CITES or Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora is a global treaty that was enacted in 1973 to protect the trade of endangered animal species or their body parts. Since, certain elephant species like the Asian elephant are endangered, this convention is applicable to them.
The African Elephant Conservation Act (1988) and The Asian Elephant Conservation Act (1997) was passed to protect the African and Asian elephants respectively, from being poached illegally.
Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) charts out certain restrictions and regulations that are required to be observed while trading in ivory. This is applicable for all tusks that are shipped from Africa, where the system monitors the process with the help of number codes assigned to each shipment. The coding process makes it easier to find an anomaly and take requisite actions.
Elephants in popular culture
Elephants have been used for centuries in battles, as pets and in the labour force. They are considered extremely auspicious creatures in multiple cultures.
In Hinduism, the Elephant God, Lord Ganesha is viewed as the destroyer of all obstacles and a symbol of prosperity and fortune.
In Buddhism, it is believed that The Buddha’s mother Mahamaya had dreamt of a white elephant holding a white lotus in its trunk enter her womb. This dream was interpreted as a divine sign that the queen would give birth to a child who would do great things. Moreover, the elephant is also observed as a symbol of strength, might, faithfulness, peace and tolerance in the Buddhist culture.
The elephant is the national animal of Thailand and Laos and is also the national animal symbol of Guinea. Often, in the Indian 10 Rupee currency note we observe an elephant on the reverse side of the note together with a rhinoceros and tiger.
On celluloid, the very heartening Disney film 'Dumbo' or 'The Jungle Book' among many others have portrayed elephants as very gentle, warm, loving yet regal creatures.
Among books one of the most well-written books is 'The Elephant Whisperer' by Lawrence Anthony and Graham Spence. Also, for children, Horton is an elephant popularised by Theodor Seuss Geisel who wrote under the pen-name of Dr Seuss.
Elephants have been on planet Earth for millions of years. However, a spate of human activities threatens their existence. With elephants being listed as threatened or endangered, it time that we become more cognizant of the need for conserving these gentle beasts and leave a better world for the generations to come.
About the author:
Written by Subhechha Chatterjee on 27 December 2019
Subhechha Chatterjee is a Microbiology Graduate and a Young India Fellow with a keen interest in experimenting with behavioural change strategies that positively impact public health. She is also a professional Kathak dancer. She voluntarily mentors young orphaned children as she believes that happiness and knowledge grow only when shared.
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