Its most typical characteristic is the trunk, a very much elongated combination of nose and upper lip, which can be used to grab objects such as food. Elephants also have tusks, large teeth coming out of their upper jaws. Elephant tusks are the major source of ivory, but because of the increased rarity of elephants, almost all hunting and trade is now illegal.
Elephants are the largest living land mammals. At birth it is common for an elephant calf to weigh 100 kg (225 pounds). It takes 20 to 22 months for a baby elephant to develop, the longest gestation period of any land animal. The largest elephant ever recorded was a male shot in Angola in 1974, that weighed 12 tonnes (27,000 pounds, or 13.5 tons).
It has long been known that African and Indian elephants were separate species, termed Loxodonta africana and Elephas maximus, respectively. The African elephant is larger than the Indian one (up to 4m high and 7500kg) and has bigger ears (which are rich in veins and thought to help in cooling off the blood in the hotter African climate). African females have tusks, while Indian females don't. African elephants have a dipped back compared with Indians, and they have two "fingers" at the tip of their trunks, while Indian elephants have only one.
Elephants have three premolars and three molarss in each quadrant. They erupt in order from front to back, then wear down as the elephant chews its highly fibrous diet. When the last molar has worn out, the elephant typically dies of malnutrition; elephants in captivity can be kept alive longer than that by feeding them preground food. The molars of the African elephant are loxodont, hence the genus name.
The African elephant has two populations, savanna and forest, and recent genetic studies have led to a reclassification of these as separate species, the forest population now being called Loxodonta cyclotis, and the savanna or bush population termed Loxodonta africanus. This reclassification has important implications for conservation, because it means where there were thought to be two small populations of a single endangered species, there may in fact be two separate species, each of which is even more severely endangered. There's also a potential danger in that if the forest elephant isn't explicitly listed as an endangered species, poachers and smugglers might thus be able to evade the law forbidding trade in endangered animals and their body parts.
African elephant (left) and Indian elephant at an English zoo.
Elephants have been used in various capacities by humans. The Carthaginian general Hannibal took elephants across the Alps when he was fighting the Romans. Hannibal brought too few elephants to be of much military use, although his horse cavalry was quite successful. Hannibal probably used a smaller, now extinct third African species, the North African elephant, smaller than its two southern cousins.
Elephants have been used for transportation and entertainment, and are common to circuses around the world. Throughout Siam, India, and most of South Asia they were used in the military, used for heavy labor, especially for uprooting trees and moving logs, and were also commonly used as executioners to crush the condemned underfoot.
However, elephants have never been truly domesticated: the male elephant in heat is dangerous and difficult to control; elephants used by humans have typically been female. War elephants were an exception, however, as female elephants in battle will run from a male, only males could be used in war.
In the wild, elephants exhibit complex social behavior and strong family bonds. They communicate with very low and long-ranging sub-sonic tones.
A recent theory holds that elephants, which share an ancestor with sea cows, evolved from animals which spent most of their time in the water or even under water, using their trunks like snorkels for breathing. It has been recently discovered that the species can still swim using their trunks in that manner.
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The elephant is also the symbol for the United States Republican Party (often pictured with the Democratic party's donkey). The first depiction of the Republican party appeared in a cartoon by Thomas Nast of Harper's Weekly in 1874.