Skip to main content
Updated date:

Facts About Elephants: Their Species, Habitat, and Characteristics

Author:

The author is a research enthusiast. She studied botany and zoology as major subjects in her bachelor's program.

The elephant is a four-legged mammal. They belong to the kingdom of Animalia. They are the largest terrestrial animals. They are herbivorous and eat grass, wood, fruits, and pulp. After reading this article, you will be able to distinguish between two species of elephants and their characteristics.

Species of elephant

There are two main species of elephant: African elephants (Loxodonta) and Asian elephants (Elephas Maximus). African elephants have two subspecies: the African bush elephant (Loxodonta Africana) and the forest elephant (Loxodonta Cyclotis). They differ from each other in size and habitat. There are three subspecies of Asian elephant: Indian (E. m. Indicus), Sri Lankan (E. m. maximum), and Sumatran (E. m. sumatranus). Indian elephants are spread widely across the continent. The Sumatran elephants are the smallest found on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, which contains a large number of animals and plant species. Sri Lankan elephants are the largest subspecies in terms of size. But still, scientists argue that if there are enough variations that create them a separate species.


An Asian elephant

An Asian elephant

An African elephant

An African elephant

The White Elephant

White elephants are very rare. They are found in Thailand, Burma, and rarely in Africa. Although they are not a separate species, they differ from others because of their skin color. Their skin color is not pure white. They have a reddish-brown color, which turns pink when they are wet. These elephants are important in their respective areas because of their distinct skin color. Whenever a white elephant is found in Thailand, it is presented to the ruler of the time. And the more "white elephants" the rulers have, the stronger their position in society. Similarly, in Burma, they are considered a sign of good fortune.

A white elephant in Burma

A white elephant in Burma

Habitat

Elephants live in tropical and sub-tropical areas of Africa and Asia. Most of them live in forests, woodlands, and savannas, but some of them also live in deserts and mountains. A Woodland is land covered with trees, shrubs, and grass and has plenty of sunlight. They widely change their habitat to suit their needs. They used to migrate from one place to another in search of food and water. They also change their habitat because of weather changes.

African elephants live mostly in savannas and tropical forests. Savannas are full of grass and some scattered trees. The average rainfall in savannas is 20 to 50 inches each year. Some African elephants also live in deserts and mountains, and the desert elephant can travel up to 60 miles in a day in search of food.

Asian elephants' habitats include plains, deciduous forest, evergreen forest, and cultivated lands. In hot weather, they prefer to migrate towards watery areas to prevent dehydration.

Unique Body Features

Trunk

They have a distinct feature called a "trunk," also called a proboscis. The proboscis is an elongated nose in vertebrates. It is the fusion of the upper lip and the nose. Elephants use their trunks to carry food and water to their mouths and to catch things. There are two finger-like extensions at the end of the trunk that elephants use to grab food or objects. The trunk of an elephant has 40,000 muscles, which makes it a versatile and delicate organ.

Tusks

Elephants have 26 teeth: 12 molars, 12 premolars and a set of enlarged growing teeth known as "tusks". Almost all African elephants have tusks whereas only some male Asian elephants have tusks. Tusks are elongated incisors in elephant. They are deeply rooted and most of the part is made by dentine (a hard, bony tissue) which is also known as "ivory". Tusks of elephant are only one set that keeps growing throughout their life. Elephants replace their teeth six times during their life cycle. Tusks replace milk teeth at 6 to 12 month of age of an elephant and grow almost 17cm in a year.

An elephant with tusks

An elephant with tusks

Ears

Elephants have unique ears which work like a cooling system for them. The ear is 6 feet from top to bottom and 5 feet wide. The advantage of large ears is that they can pick up sound from a distance. The ears of African elephants are bigger than their Asian cousins and look like the continent of Africa. The average weight of an ear is nearly 100 pounds. Elephants don't have enough sweat glands, so they use their ears to regulate their body temperature. Their ears act like fans and by flapping they provide air to the rest of the body of an elephant.

Communication in Elephants

Vocal Communication

Elephants communicate through vocal calls that include roars and rumbles. These calls convey specific massages. When elephants try to save calves from danger, they make a special call. Hearing this, the rest of the elephants also come around the calves to protect them. The pitch of the sound depends on their mood.


Elephants produce low-frequency sounds that the human ear cannot hear. These soft sounds are so powerful that they can be heard from a long distance and carry the message to the elephants that are a short distance away. These low sounds are called infrasonic noises. They also express their feelings and emotions of joy and sorrow by making noises.

Non-vocal Communication

Communication Through Vibration

Communication through vibrations means expressing the message through mechanical vibrations of the substrate. In elephants, the substrate is earth. With the help of this communication, elephants can warn each other of danger from miles away. The soft pads of their feet produce seismic vibrations which they detect through their proboscis and feet.

Elephants possess various modifications suited for vibratory contact. For example, the pads of the feet contain cartilaginous nodes. The ears of elephants contain annular muscle, that helps them hear seismic signals.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Elephants become sexually mature at 14 or 15 years of age. Sexual maturity age depends on nutrition. A female produces a single baby (rarely twins). The gestational period is 20 to 22 months long. A female with good health and habitat gives birth every three to four years. The weight of a newborn baby is usually 100 kg. The infants can stand shortly after birth. They are polygamous, in which a male can have more than one female for mating. But it's not that easy. They have to be dominant over other males to attract more female elephants.

Musth

Musth is a condition in which a male elephant shows very aggressive behaviour. This occurs once a year and has a huge impact on the behaviour of elephants. This behaviour change is because of hormonal reasons. In musth, the level of testosterone increases up to 50 times than normal and some physiological changes occur in elephants. Elephants become more dangerous and aggressive in musth. Draining of urine from legs also noticed in musth. Secretion from temporal glands occurs, which are located midway between the ears and eyes. The period of musth can last from a few weeks to months. But no one still knows the full truth of musth. Every researcher and elephant keeper gives a different opinion about it.

Signs of musth

In musth, elephants show strange behavior and become dangerous. The most common signs by which we can recognize "the musth elephants" are: alertness, spreading of ears, blowing trunk, swollen trunk base, the foreskin of the penis becoming white and greenish, and destructive behavior towards other elephants and humans.

How African and Asian Elephants are Different from Each Other

The difference between African and Asian elephants

FeaturesAfrican elephantsAsian elephants

Size

African elephants are bigger in size and weigh around 5,000 to 14,000 lbs.

Asian elephants are slightly smaller and weighing between 4,500 to 11,000 lbs.

Trunk

African elephants have two fingers like projections at the end of their trunk.u

Asian elephants have only one.

Ears

African elephants have large ears which look like the continent of Africa.

Asian elephants have small and rounded ears.

Tusks

Almost all African elephants have long tusks which grow in size with time.

Only some male Asian elephants have long tusk while females have small tusks which are not extended outside called "tushes".

Skin

African elephants have looser and more wrinkled skin.

Asian elephants have harder and less wrinkled skin.

Bull elephant in musth

Bull elephant in musth

Importance of Elephant

Support other animals

Elephants are also known as ecosystem engineers. They maintain the ecosystem of their habitat, which helps other animals to thrive. In dry and hot weather, they dig the land to make watering holes from which other animals can drink water. They find and dig underground water with the help of their trunk, tusks and feet.


They Attract Tourist

Being a huge and valuable animal, they attract tourist toward themselves. People always want to watch and ride on them due to their friendly behaviour and unique body type.

Distribution of Seeds

Many plants and trees rely on elephants for their survival. As elephant eat seeds of plants and trees and these seeds need to pass through the digestive system of an elephant to germinate. Elephant's dung contains these seeds and spread them from one place to another.

Habitat modifiers

They play a significant role in shaping their habitat. They make pathways for other animals in the forest by grazing. They make paths for sunlight to reach on the ground in the forest, essential for many trees and plants. Even footprints of elephant have an advantage: when the holes of the footprint filled with water; they provide shelter to tadpole and other small organisms.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 EK Jadoon

Comments

EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on August 23, 2020:

Thank you, Bill. Your words mean a lot to me.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 23, 2020:

That was a great read. Very informative! Thanks for adding to my education.

EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on August 19, 2020:

Kanwal, thanks for appreciating.

KANWAL YOUSAFZAI from Pakistan on August 17, 2020:

Good going!

Well explained, i liked the article.

EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on August 15, 2020:

Alicia, thank you so much for your precious words. Honestly, I am inspired by your writing style and have learned a lot of things from your articles.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on August 15, 2020:

Thank you for sharing the facts. I think elephants are fascinating animals. I enjoy reading about them.

EK Jadoon (author) from Abbottabad Pakistan on August 15, 2020:

Thank you for your kind words, Eric. I have tried to write this article in such a way that children can also benefit from it.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 15, 2020:

A really excellent article. So interesting. My ten year old will like this also. Thank you.

Related Articles