One of Their Closest Relatives is a Little Furball, and More Intriguing Facts About the Elephant

Elephants once ranged throughout much of Africa and Asia, but their populations have dwindled on both continents over the past century. Asian elephants – which number no more than 50,000 and are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List – are now found in parts of India and Southeast Asia. African elephants, meanwhile, range across sub-Saharan Africa. They’re split into two groups: the forest elephant, which is critically endangered, and the savanna or bush elephant, which is also endangered. In 1930, there were up to 10 million elephants throughout Africa, but that number has fallen to 415,000.

Learn more about these smart, majestic creatures and why they need our help.

They’re the Largest Land Mammals

Weighing in at several tons should firmly put you in the “large” category, and, for elephants, they’re in a category all their own. These animals are the largest land mammals, with the African savanna elephant the biggest of all: Males weigh around 13,000 pounds, while females bulk up to about 6,500, though you can sometimes add a ton or two onto those figures. They’re also quite tall, growing up to 13 feet. Asian elephants aren’t exactly tiny themselves, weighing between 6,000 and 12,000 pounds and standing between 6 and 12 feet tall.

But They’re Also Long-Distance Swimmers

Asian elephant swimming

Despite their colossal bulk, elephants are graceful in the water. They’re strong swimmers, often using their trunks as snorkels. They can log some distance, too. Elephants that helped with logging operations in the Andaman Islands of India used to swim between the islands to help with felled trees.

They’re Long-Distance Callers, Too

The trumpeting sound of an elephant is familiar to most of us, but did you know they also communicate with sounds we can’t even hear? Elephants make low-frequency sounds to communicate with each other. While we can’t pick up on them, scientists have observed elephants more than two miles away responding to them. These sounds can be helpful during mating season and to alert others about a predator.

They Have Personal Air Conditioning

It can get pretty toasty in the African elephants’ habitat, but, thankfully, they have their own air conditioning to cool things down a bit. African elephants are able to generate a personal breeze by flapping their ears. This also works to cool the blood flowing in their ears.

The Ladies Are in Charge

African elephant herd in the grass

Elephant herds are generally led by a matriarch, while members of the herd include her other female relatives and their offspring. These grandmothers, mothers, and aunts work together to care for young and keep them safe should a predator be on the prowl. After they grow up, female calves will typically stay within the same herd. Males usually strike out on their own once they’ve matured, but they do sometimes form bachelor herds.

Their Tusks Are Multifunctional

Elephants are often targeted for their tusks, but they’re hardly mere decorations. Tusks are used for lifting things up, protecting the animal’s trunk, digging for food and water, stripping bark from trees, gathering food, and defense. Elephants are also left-tusked or right-tusked, with their dominant side generally showing more wear and tear. Research has shown that poaching may actually lead to more elephants without tusks, though, as they’re less apt to be killed by poachers, thus allowing them to pass on their genes.

One of Their Closest Living Relatives is a Tiny Little Furball

When you think of animals that are similar to elephants, a furry little guy may not be the first thing that comes to mind. It should be, though. One of the elephant’s closest relatives is a rabbit-like animal called a hyrax. Hyraxes are native to Africa and share a common ancestor with the elephant. Not surprising, as they have several similarities to elephants, including tusk-like teeth and flattened, hoof-like nails.

They Show Personality – And Cheekiness – When Reacting to Treats

Side profile of elephant standing among trees

Elephants are known to be clever creatures, and how they react to treats shows how much personality – and smarts – they have. Researchers at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute studied a group of logging camp elephants to see which would be good candidates for release into the wild. The goal was primarily to see which individuals would be less apt to crop raid and which were more fearful of people.

As part of the personality assessment, the team used puzzle boxes with treats inside and on top. They wanted to see how the elephants responded to this new object. Among the more noteworthy reactions was a female who got all of the treats out before walking away with the empty box, along with an older elephant who pushed a younger elephant out of the way when the youngster took the first treat out of a box they were exploring together.

They Provide Major Environmental Benefits

Elephants help shape their ecosystems, in a good way. With their travel and their dung, they help with seed dispersal. They also trample down vegetation as they roam and forage, allowing for more open space and grassland. This helps the populations of grazers like buffalo and zebra, which then go on to provide more food for predators like lions and cheetahs. African forest elephants also play a role in carbon capture, as their trampling in their rainforest habitat decreases vegetation density. This allows hardy, larger trees more nutrients, which helps them grow larger and suck in more carbon.

They Face Threats

African elephant mother and calf

The survival of these personality-laden, social, and beneficial animals is increasingly at risk, though. For African elephants, which are more apt to have substantial tusks, poaching is still a very real threat, as is habitat loss and fragmentation due to increasing human encroachment, particularly from agriculture. This is also a threat to Asian elephants, who are often killed in retaliation for raiding crops. They do experience poaching to a lesser extent, as well.

With all three species of elephant ranging in status from endangered to critically endangered, their future is not assured. We’re teaming up with partners to do our part to help elephants thrive. If you’d like to join in, click below!

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