Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What do you call a male adult elephant? And an adult female? What about a baby? 

Elephants have little in common with cattle, but they share with them the names for adult male (bull), adult female (cow) and juvenile (calf). Even their collective noun is the same: a herd of elephants.
 
Q: What are the closest relatives of elephants?
 
Elephants, hyraxes and sea cows (dugongs and manatees) are related. Most genetic studies place the sea cows closer to elephants than the hyraxes. The aardvark was thought to be the next closest group, but recent genetic studies suggest that the perissodactyla (horses, tapirs and rhinos) are more closely related to the elephant. The common ancestor between elephants and aardvarks lived some 55 million years ago.
 
Q: Do all elephants have tusks?
 
Unlike Asian elephants, in which only males have tusks, both male and female African elephants are tusked. However, due to the hunting pressure on tusked animals brought about by poaching for ivory, tusklessness is an increasingly common condition in African elephants. 
 
Q: I heard that elephants can regrow their tusks - is it true?
 
Humans grow two sets of teeth in their lifetimes - the rootless "milk teeth" of childhood and the second, rooted set of teeth which are supposed to last into old age. With the amount of food elephants eat every day, their teeth wear down at alarming rates, and that's why they grow not two but six sets of chewing teeth (molars) in their lifetimes. Tusks do not wear out so fast, so an elephant does not grow more than one set in its life. In fact, tusks are rootless, just like human milk teeth. However, they do continue to grow in length throughout the lifetime of the elephant.
 
Q:What does an elephant use its tusks for?
 
Elephants use their tusks to pry bark off trees or dig for roots, and in social encounters as an instrument of display or as a weapon. 
 
Q:What is the full purpose of the elephant's trunk?
 
The trunk combines both nose and upper lip and transforms them into a single powerful organ that is able to touch, grasp and smell. It is strong enough to uproot a tree, sensitive enough to pick up a pea-sized fruit from the ground, and long enough to reach foliage high in the trees. The trunk is also used to drink by sucking up water and squirting it into the mouth. Finally, elephants use their trunks for greeting, caressing, threatening, and throwing dust over the body.
 
The elephant's trunk has about 15,000 muscles and it takes baby elephants quite some time to learn to master its use.
 
Q: Why does an African elephant have such large ears?
 
The enormous ears of elephants act as cooling devices. The gigantic earflaps (which can measure up to 2 square metres (21.5 square feet) are equipped with an intricate web of blood vessels. When the animal flaps its ears, the blood temperature lowers by as much as 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit). 
 
Q: Why is an elephant's skin so wrinkled?
 
Wrinkles are also related to the need for these large animals to keep their body temperature down. Wrinkles increase the surface area, so there is more skin to wet when the animal bathes. All the cracks and crevices trap moisture, which then takes much longer to evaporate. Thus, a wrinkly elephant keeps cooler for longer than it would with smooth skin.
 
Q: How much do elephants drink in a day?
 
An adult elephant will drink about 225 liters of water per day and this can sometimes be drunk during a single visit. Each trunkful may amount to between 4 and 8 liters. 
 
Q: How much do elephants eat in a day? What does their diet consist of?
 
Elephants are herbivores (plant eaters), but they cannot digest cellulose, the substance that makes up much plant matter. They spend about three-quarters of their time, day and night, selecting, picking, preparing and eating food. An adult elephant in the wild will eat in the region of 100 to 200 Kg (220 to 440 lb.) of vegetation per day depending on the habitat and the size of the elephant.
 
The number of plant species eaten by any one elephant may vary but it is likely to be more than fifty. About 30-60 per cent of elephant diet is grass, if it is available. Like humans and apes, an elephant's choice of food-plants will be determined partly by what grows locally, partly by what was learned from its mother, and partly by what it has discovered by trying novel food items. Elephants also select their meals taking into account the time it takes to prepare each mouthful. Eating long grass is probably the easiest and quickest way for an elephant to fill up! On the other hand, one of the most time-consuming food-items for elephants to prepare is bark. With larger trees, the elephant drives a tusk between the bark and the sapwood and then yanks a strip off the tree with its trunk. The soft wood of some trees such as the baobab is also eaten. Such tusking sometimes destroys the whole tree. 
 
Q: How many hours do elephants sleep?
 
Elephants normally sleep for a few hours before dawn and again during the heat of the day. 
 
Q: Do elephants have distinct calving seasons?
 
Elephants can give birth at any time of the year if food is plentiful all year round. In areas where food is scarce during dry seasons, most births occur during rainy seasons. This ensures that the mother has plenty to eat while she is suckling her calf. 
 
Q: How many young do elephants have?
 
Females between 14 - 45 years may give birth to calves approximately every four years with the mean interbirth intervals increasing to five years by age 52 and six years by age 60. Interbirth intervals of up to 13 years may occur depending upon habitat conditions and population densities. The mean calving interval varies from population to population, with high density populations or otherwise nutritionally stressed populations exhibiting longer intervals between births. 
 
Q: How big are newborn elephants?
 
After 22 months growing inside its mother's womb, a newborn baby elephant weighs more than the average adult human being. Female calves weigh 90-100 kg (198 - 221 lb.). Males are heavier and weigh up to 120 kg (265 lb.) 
 
Q: How big do elephants grow?
 
An adult bull savanna elephant can have a shoulder height of 3.3 meters (11 feet), weigh up to 7,500 Kg (16,538 lb.) and reach a length of 9 meters (30 feet). Females are smaller, weighing up to 3,232 Kg (7,127 lb.) and measuring 2.6 meters (8.7 feet) at shoulder height.
 
Elephants are unusual among mammals in that they continue to grow throughout their life, although their rate of growth slows after they reach sexual maturity. 
 
Q: How big are elephant home ranges?
 
Elephant home ranges vary from population to population and habitat to habitat. Individual home ranges vary from 15 to 3,700 square kilometers (24-5,958 square miles). 
 
Q: Are elephants territorial?
 
Elephants are not territorial although they utilize specific home areas during particular times of the year. 
 
Q: How do elephants communicate with each other?
 
Elephants communicate with each other in many ways and with all their senses. They rely less on their eyes than humans do but visual signals are important and the position of their ears and trunks show what mood they are in. Their sense of smell can tell them something about another elephant's health or sexual condition. Touch can also be used to convey some information. However, the main way an elephant communicates deliberately is by sound. Elephant vocalizations range from high-pitched squeaks to deep rumbles, two-thirds of which are emitted at a frequency too low for the human ear to detect. Such low frequency calls may be heard by other elephants at distances of at least eight kilometers.
 
Recent studies also show that foot stomping and low rumbling emitted by elephants generate seismic waves in the ground that can travel nearly 20 miles along the surface of the Earth. Elephants may be able to sense these vibrations through their feet and interpret them as warning signals of a distant danger. They may therefore be communicating at much farther distances than previously thought. 
 
Q: Is it true that an elephant never forgets?
 
Elephants do have remarkable memories. In the wild, elephants appear to remember for years the relationships with dozens, perhaps hundreds of other elephants, some of whom they may see only occasionally. They also have an impressive memory for places to drink and to find food. This information gets passed on from generation to generation. 
 
Q: What is the role of old female elephants in elephant society?
 
Elephants live in a social hierarchy dominated by older females. Females travel in long-lasting social units of about half a dozen adult females and their offspring, with the unit being led by a single older female, the matriarch.
 
Males do not maintain long-term social bonds, remaining in the unit only into their teens. They then live out their lives in loose bachelor groups or wandering on their own.
 
To test the importance of the age of the female leader of the individual units, researchers from the University of Sussex, the Institute of Zoology in London and the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya used high-powered hi-fi equipment to play back the sounds of elephant calls.
 
Calls from complete elephant strangers prompted the mothers to cluster around their young defensively, while familiar calls were ignored.
 
The units led by the oldest matriarchs, those with the most experience, were best able to distinguish between friends and those that might present problems by harassing calves or starting disputes.
 
If these key individuals cannot immediately distinguish between potential threats, their families may spend too much time being defensive and not enough time reproducing. In fact, the scientists found the age of the matriarch to be a significant predictor of the number of calves produced by the family per female reproductive year.
 
These findings present important implications for conservation of elephants because older, larger animals are more likely to be targets for hunters and poachers, and killing these individuals could weaken entire family units for years. 
 
Q: How long do elephants live?
 
An elephant can live up to 70 years and when an elephant dies of old age the cause of death is often hunger as the 6th set of molars wears out. 
 
Q: Where do African elephants occur?
 
African elephants can be found in the following countries:
 
Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
 
The largest populations are found in southern, eastern and central Africa. 
 
Q: What is the difference between savanna and forest elephants?
 
There are two subspecies of the African elephant, the forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) and the savanna elephant (Loxodonta a. africana). There is some evidence to suggest that these may in fact be two different species but this issue is still being debated.
 
The African forest elephant can be distinguished from the savanna elephant by its smaller body size, smaller ears, and its straighter, downward - projecting tusks. Most of the forest elephants live in central and western Africa's rain forests while the savanna elephant is found throughout the grassy plains, woodlands, swamps and bushlands from sea level to high mountains.

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African elephant flapping its ears.