30 Facts About Elephants That Will Amaze You
These large-brained creatures are hardly dumbos!
It’s no secret that elephants are extraordinary animals. These magnificent beasts have an impressive size, are some of the smartest creatures on the planet, and, of course, they have huge floppy ears that make them insanely adorable. But it turns out, there’s way more to learn about elephants than what you already know.
For example, were you aware that about 2,000 pounds of an elephant’s hefty weight is comprised of its skin alone? Or that they’re one of the only animals that can identify themselves in a mirror? Read on, because the more you learn about these gentle giants, the more smitten you’ll be with them.
Elephants can tell your gender, age, and ethnicity from your voice.
In the case of elephants, big brains really do mean greater intelligence. According to findings published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014, these creatures are so clever that they can determine ethnicity, gender, and even the age of a human from acoustic cues that they can pick up in their voices. The researchers believe that elephants use this incredible skill to identify possible human threats and adjust their behavior accordingly.
Some elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror.
Elephants aren’t only good at recognizing human voices, they can also recognize their own reflection. In another study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2006, scientists found that Asian elephants know that they’re looking at themselves while gazing into a mirror, a level of self-awareness that only highly intelligent animals—like dolphins, apes, and humans—are known to display. Lookin’ good, guys!
Elephants can “hear” with their feet.
Elephants may have massive ears, but they can also pick up on noises via their feet, which register low-frequency rumbles caused by other animals up to 20 miles away, according to researchers at Stanford University.
“We think they’re sensing these underground vibrations through their feet,” explained study author Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, an affiliate of the Stanford Center for Conservation Biology. “Seismic waves could travel from their toenails to the ear via bone conduction, or through somatosensory receptors in the foot similar to ones found in the trunk.”
They make their own sunscreen.
If you spend any amount of time outside under the scorching sun, you know how important it is to protect yourself from harmful UV rays with sunscreen. And elephants, who live in some of the sunniest places on the planet, know it too. They save themselves from painful burns by using sand as a natural sunscreen to cover up their skin, according to Smithsonian. They’ll even cover their young in sand while they’re sleeping in order to keep them safe. Aww!
Elephants can turn pink.
Most elephants have grey skin, even though it sometimes appears brown thanks to the reddish sand they cover themselves with for protection. However, when Asian elephants get older, they can start to lose pigment in their skin; as a result, parts of their bodies, such as their trunks, begin to turn pink.
It turns out though, that rosy color isn’t exclusively for the elders: In 2009, a pink baby elephant was spotted in Botswana andt was believed to be an extremely rare albino African elephant.
Just like humans are right- or left-handed, elephants are right- or left-tusked.
Elephants use their tusks—which are actually a pair of the animal’s upper incisors—in all kinds of handy ways, from digging to fighting. But they use one more than the other. Yes, just like humans, elephants have one tusk that’s more dominant. You can generally tell which is the animal’s “master tusk” because it’s often the shorter of the two, with a tip that’s been rounded down by use, according to the McGill School of Computer Science.
And their tusks never stop growing.
An elephant’s tusks continue to grow throughout their lives—and they grow a lot. According to McGill, the tusks of an adult male grow around seven inches every year. So if you spot an elephant with particularly long tusks, that can be an indicator of old age.
They use “cologne” to find a mate.
Scientists believe that when male elephants are in “musth,” a period of high levels of testosterone, they produce pheromones to attract females. Well-known elephant researcher Joyce Poole suggests that the animals might flap their ears in order to fan this “elephant cologne” as far as possible, according to McGill.
Female elephants only get pregnant once every five years.
When female elephants are between 12 and 15 years old, they’re at an age when they’re ready to mate and will continue to do so until they’re around 50. However, they don’t get pregnant every year. In fact, most elephants will only give birth once every five years. But there’s a very specific reason for that…
And their pregnancies lasts for nearly two years.
When human parents are waiting for a new baby to arrive, nine months can seem like a very long time. But that’s nothing compared to how long a female elephant—which is also called a cow—has to wait before she gives birth to her little one. Each pregnancy lasts just about 22 months, which is the longest gestation period for any mammal, according to research published in Proceedings of the Royal Society.
Male elephants can stay with their moms for up to two decades.
Male elephants tend to live on their own or with small groups of other males. But that’s only when they’re adults. From the time they’re born until they’re teenagers, anywhere from 10 to 20 years old, they stay with their mothers and live with a group of female elephants.
One female elephant raises all the babies in the herd.
The oldest elephant in a group of females is deemed the matriarch, who assumes a leadership role in the herd. She’s responsible for taking care of the offspring and making decisions that affect the survival of the group, such as fleeing danger and seeking out food sources.
An elephant’s trunk contains around 100,000 muscles.
Elephants accomplish a ton with their trunks, from delivering water to their mouths, to stripping leaves off of trees, to making their signature trumpet-like sound. How do they get it all done? They’re very buff, it turns out. An elephant’s trunk has around 100,000 different muscles, National Geographic reports.
And those trunks can hold more than two gallons of water.
Elephants don’t actually use their trunks like a straw, as some people might believe. Instead, the animals suck water up into their trunks and then spray it into their mouths to quench their thirst. It’s a pretty effective process judging by the fact that adult elephants can hold around 2.25 gallons (or 8.5 liters) of water in their trunks.
Elephants have a “finger” on their trunk.
On the tip of an Asian elephant’s trunk is an extension that gives the appendage its dexterous ability and allows the animal to grasp things and pick them up much like humans do with their hands. That’s why this tip is referred to as the trunk’s “finger.”
African elephants have ears shaped like the continent of Africa.
If you ever come across an elephant and aren’t sure which type you’ve encountered, simply look at their ears, according to National Geographic. African elephants, the largest elephant species, have ears that are roughly shaped like the continent they call home. Asian elephants are slightly smaller and happen to have ears that resemble India.
Asian elephants are missing a toenail.
Besides their ears, another way to ID an elephant is by looking at their back feet. Though both Asian and African elephants have five toes on each foot, Asian elephants tend to only have four toenails on their back feet, Smithsonian notes.
Elephants may have developed a sixth toe.
Despite the fact that some elephants only have four toenails, somewhere along the line, other elephants may have developed an additional toe to improve their posture, according to findings published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2011. What scientists previously dismissed as “cartilaginous curiosities” are now thought to “act functionally like digits,” meaning that the boney bit may be like another toe.
And the size of an elephant’s shoulders will determine the size of their front feet.
You might not think that an elephant’s shoulders have anything to do with their feet, but if you’re willing to do some math, there’s actually a clear correlation. According to Smithsonian, the height of an Asian or African elephant at the shoulder is “roughly equivalent to the circumference of their front foot multiplied by two.”
The closest living relative of the elephant is much smaller than you’d expect.
If you had to guess which animal is the elephant’s closest living relative, you might choose a hippo or even a walrus. You probably wouldn’t go with the correct answer, the hyrax, since this East African mammal only weighs around 8 to 11 pounds, doesn’t have a trunk or tusks, and resembles a furry rodent.
Elephants are the only mammals to have four knees.
Like humans, most mammals have two knees and two elbows. Think of a dog: The joints where their front legs bend are considered elbows, while the joints in the back legs are knees. Elephants, however, are the only mammals that have four forward-facing knees, according to McGill.
Elephants are neither diurnal nor nocturnal.
Most creatures are either diurnal (awake during the day and asleep at night) like humans, or nocturnal (primarily active during the night) like owls. But elephants reserve more specific windows for activity. Classified as crepuscular, they tend to sleep during the night and rest throughout the day, with dawn and dusk being their busy time.
They eat 300 to 600 pounds of food each day.
Elephants spend around 16 hours each day foraging for food to satisfy their enormous appetite. Grass makes up half of their diet, while the rest consists of a combination of bamboo, tree bark, root, leaves, fruit, seeds, and even flowers. Incredibly, each adult elephant consumes anywhere from 300 to 600 pounds of vegetation every day, McGill notes, although around 60 percent of that passes through the animal’s body without actually being digested.
There are underground salt-mining elephants.
We tend to think of elephants as creatures that roam the wide-open plains while grazing on grass, but there are actually a group of the enormous animals that head underground whenever they’re looking for a snack, according to Animal Planet. Elephants in Mount Elgon, Kenya, have been known to travel down into the area’s Kitum Cave, where they then use their tusks to break salt free from the subterranean shelters before eating the savory treat.
Elephants are the largest land animals on Earth.
Modern day elephants might just be the closest thing we have to dinosaurs, at least when it comes to their gigantic size. Elephants are the world’s largest terrestrial animals, and male African elephants, the biggest species, grow up to be over nine feet tall, weighing anywhere from 9,000 to 16,500 pounds, National Geographic reports. The biggest elephant ever recorded was even more massive than that, and weighed about 26,400 pounds.
And their skin alone can weigh one ton.
You already know that elephants get impressively heavy, but did you realize how much of that weight could be attributed to their skin alone? According to the International Elephant Foundation, an elephant’s skin can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds and grow as thick as one inch.
Elephants are huge when they’re born.
Elephants aren’t only massive when they’re full-grown adults, they’re already giants when they’re first born. Baby African elephants usually stand around three feet tall and already weigh around 200 pounds at birth. And they drink around 3 gallons of milk every day to support their growing bones.
The world’s smallest elephant is the Borneo pygmy.
The smallest elephants that ever existed on Earth were around the size of large pigs and lived on Crete until 5000 B.C. Today, according to Guinness World Records, the tiniest elephant is the Borneo pygmy, but they’re still a pretty good size: Adults males grow to between five and eight feet tall and weigh around 5,000 pounds (that’s a photo of one, above).
An elephant-made painting once sold for $39,000.
They may not be pulling in what a piece by Picasso demands at auction, but a group of elephants made their mark—and brought in the big bucks—with their own art. A painting created by eight elephants from Chiang Mai, Thailand, sold for $39,000 in 2005, making it the most expensive painting by elephants ever, according to Guinness.
Elephants don’t really like peanuts.
Despite what TV and movies would have you believe, peanuts are not a natural part of an elephant’s diet. According to Marie Galloway, the elephant manager at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, they’re definitely “not a favorite food” of the animals. She explains that peanuts have too much protein for the creatures, who require a high fiber diet, which is why they prefer to eat grass, fruits, and vegetables. And for some more elephant fun, check out the 20 Elephant Jokes So Funny You’ll Laugh Your Trunks Off.
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