African elephants are the largest land animals on Earth. They are slightly larger than their Asian cousins and can be identified by their larger ears that look somewhat like the continent of Africa. (Asian elephants have smaller, rounded ears.)
African elephants are a keystone species, meaning they play a critical role in their ecosystem. Also known as “ecosystem engineers,” elephants shape their habitat in many ways. During the dry season, they use their tusks to dig up dry riverbeds and create watering holes many animals can drink from. Their dung is full of seeds, helping plants spread across the environment—and it makes a pretty good habitat for dung beetles too! In the forest, their feasting on trees and shrubs creates pathways for smaller animals to move through, and in the savanna, they uproot trees and eat saplings, which helps keep the landscape open for zebras and other plains animals to thrive.
African elephants are sometimes categorized into savanna elephants and forest elephants. There are some physical and genetic differences, but scientists are still arguing over whether the differences are big enough to call them separate species. Currently, most still consider them the same species, Loxodonta africana.
- Toothy Tusks – Elephants’ long tusks are actually modified teeth. They can grow up to eight feet long, and both male and female elephants can have them. These tusks are used to dig roots from the ground, strip the bark from trees, and battle one another during the breeding season. They are also the reason elephants are poached, as they are sold illegally as ivory.
- Hear Me Now? – The incredible size of an elephant’s ears is not just for hearing! Their huge, flattened ears serve as a built-in air conditioner. Elephant ears are full of blood vessels, and when they flap their ears the blood vessels are cooled, releasing heat from the body. This adaptation is incredibly important in the hot environments elephants can inhabit.
- The Nose, Knows! – One of the most iconic body parts an elephant possesses is its trunk. This highly specialized nose is also highly sensitive. The trunk has 8 main muscles, and 150,000 muscle fascicles, or muscle portions. This allows elephants to have the utmost control over their trunks. An elephant can use its trunk to knock over a tree or to pick up a single piece of hay.
- Built-In Straw – The incredible trunk of an elephant also doubles as a personal straw, sort of… While elephants can suck water up into their trunks if they inhaled it all the way they would suffocate. Instead, elephants suck up a trunkful of water, curl the trunk to their mouths, and pour the water in.
Elephants have very tight knit social bonds, and live in groups called herds. The leader of the herd is the oldest female, and she is known as a matriarch. The matriarch is responsible for remembering where the most reliable food and water sources are.
Male elephants are less social, and once they reach sexual maturity they usually leave the herd. They will live on their own, or with other males in bachelor herds. The only time they interact with females is to mate.
After mating, the female elephant has a gestation period of 22 months – nearly 2 years! The male elephant takes no part in the care of the calf, and leaves after mating. When the calf is born, the entire herd takes part in protecting and raising it. For the first year, the calf will gain between 2 and three 3 per day! It can take between 2 and 3 years before they are fully weaned.
Elephants are matriarchal, meaning they live in female-led groups. The matriarch is usually the biggest and oldest. She presides over a multi-generational herd that includes other females, called cows, and their young. Adult males, called bulls, tend to roam on their own, sometimes forming smaller, more loosely associated all-male groups.
Having a baby elephant is a serious commitment. Elephants have a longer pregnancy than any other mammal—almost 22 months. Cows usually give birth to one calf every two to four years. At birth, elephants already weigh some 200 pounds and stand about three feet tall.
Elephants are herbivores, and will eat a wide variety of vegetation. Some common food items include fruit, leaves, bark, grass, flowering plants, leaves, shrubs, and even small trees. African forest elephants feed more heavily on fruits, seeds, leaves, bark, and branches.
They use their prehensile trunks to pick leaves from branches, pull mouthfuls of grass, and rip entire branches from trees. A single elephant can consume over 900 lbs. of plants in a day. That’s nearly half a ton!
Does the African Elephant Make a Good Pet
Not only is it illegal to own an African elephant as a pet, but it is also extremely dangerous and expensive! Such large animals are simply impractical to own as a pet.