Elephants are the world’s largest land animals, surpassed in size only by the larger species of whales.
There are two existing elephant species, the African and Asian. The Buttonwood Park Zoo has two female Asian elephants, Emily and Ruth. The Asian is the smaller of the two species.
The Asian elephant has a massive gray body, a huge domed head with rather small ears, and the well-known, distinctive trunk and tusks.
Its legs are massive pillars, required to support its great body weight, and its short, broad feet are equipped with nails and an elastic pad. The Asian elephant has five toes on its front feet and four on its back feet. Elephants walk on their toes and use their ears to cool themselves because they do not sweat.
If you want to look more closely, you will see a single protuberance, much like a finger, at the tip of the trunk. The African elephant has two such “fingers.”
A large bull elephant may stand as high as 10 feet at the shoulders and weigh as much as six tons. The female of the species is noticeably smaller, with a typical weight of about 2 1/2 to 3 tons.
Food and Diet
Elephants eat a great variety of plants, including grasses, tree bark, and leaves. In a typical day, an Asian elephant eats about 5 percent of its body weight and drinks nearly 50 gallons of water.
In the course of feeding, elephants uproot trees with their trunks, tear off branches, and use their tusks to strip bark from trees.
This apparently destructive behavior actually has many ecological benefits. Smaller animals eat the debris left behind by elephants, and birds can feast on insects and small reptiles turned up by the elephant’s feeding.
The broad swath created by an elephant as it travels through forest or grasslands in search of food act as conduits for rainwater and natural firebreaks.
During dry periods, elephants dig water holes in dry riverbeds, creating new sources of water. And the deep footprints they leave behind trap rainfall that can be drunk by smaller creatures.
A female elephant, known as a cow, usually begins mating at the age of 13 or 14. An Asian elephant’s pregnancy lasts between 22-24 months, the longest of all mammals.
The elephant calf weighs between 165-225 pounds. Normally, only one calf is born, but in rare cases there are twins. The mother nurses the calf for several years. A cow can produce offspring until she’s about 50 years old. Births are usually spaced anywhere from 2 1/2 to 4 years apart, but if food is scarce the spacing is longer.
A young elephant grows very rapidly until it’s about 15 years old, when growth slows down.
Females and young elephants stay together in a matriarchal herd. As male elephants reach adolescence, between 8 and 13 years of age, they begin to spend more time outside the matriarchal herd, gradually joining a group of males known as a bachelor herd.
The matriarchal herd is usually led by an older, wise cow who guides the younger animals to the best feeding and watering spots.
Matriarchal and bachelor herds travel separately, with the males covering a much larger area than the females. As a male grows older, he usually leaves the bachelor herd and begins to range alone, rejoining the females only to mate.
Elephants have very large, strong molars, which are used to chew tree branches and roots. When a molar wears away, it’s replaced by another. This happens four times during an elephant’s life. When its last molars have worn away, an old elephant can no longer chew its food and will probably starve to death.
The typical life span of an elephant in the wild is about 70 years, possibly more. In captivity, elephants have lived to be 80 years old.
Trunks, Tusks, & Brains
An elephant’s trunk is extremely versatile. It can lift objects weighing hundreds of pounds and objects as small as a coin and can hold over two gallons of water. It functions as a hand, nose, and drinking straw. The elephant’s trunk is actually a merger of its nose and upper lip. It’s both a heavy-duty tool and a very sensitive organ that contains more than 100,000 muscle units.
An elephant can use its trunk to uproot trees or to manipulate very small objects. It’s also used to carry food and water to the mouth and, in hot weather, the elephant sprays itself with cooling water or dust from the trunk.
In addition, the trunk functions as a trumpet that can send sounds over long distances, allowing elephants to communicate with one another.
Male Asian elephants grow large tusks, which are really overgrown incisors that protrude well out of the mouth. Female Asian elephants may grow small tuskes called “tushes,” which usually stick out just past the upper lip, though they’re longer than that in some females.
Elephants have long been popular in circuses and zoos not just because of their size and appearance, but also because of the intelligence that allows them to learn and perform a large variety of tricks.
Their intelligence has also made elephants valuable working animals, especially in Asian logging camps, where they’ve been employed for more than a thousand years.
Working as loggers, elephants learned to respond to hundreds of verbal commands and to use their strength stripping trees and moving logs from place to place.
When the Buttonwood Park Zoo was closed for renovation, our elephants were retrained to perform many of those tasks. Elephant Country, where they now live, has been redesigned to simulate an Indian logging camp, where they demonstrate their new skills every day.