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Elephantidae (the elephants) is the single family with living representatives in the mammal order Proboscidea. Wittemyer (2011) recognized three living elephant species: Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus), African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) and African Savanna Elephant (Loxodonta africana). However, Wittemyer notes that some authorities believe just a single African Elephant species should be recognized, with the forest and savanna forms recognized only as subspecies. African Savanna Elephants are the largest terrestrial animals on Earth.


The most distinctive feature of elephantids and their extinct proboscidean relatives is the trunk, which is derived from the nose and upper lip. The African Elephant has two fingerlike projections at the end of its trunk whereas the Asian Elephant has just one. The trunk is very powerful, but also very sensitive and its opposable lips can grasp and manipulate very small items such as single nuts. In addition to manipulating objects, the trunk is also used for breathing, olfaction, touch, and sound production.

The ivory tusks of elephants are enlarged second incisors. Both male and female African Elephants have fully developed tusks, although tusk size varies geographically (in Asian Elephants, only males have fully developed tusks). In some areas, selection from hunting pressure by humans appears to have resulted in decreased average tusk size and an increase in the frequency of tusklessness.

The large ears of African Elephants play an important role in thermoregulation.

African and Asian Elephants differ in numerous ways, including body size, absolute and relative size and shape of ears, tusks, trunk structure, number of ribs, and number of toenails on the front and hind feet. In addition, relative to African Elephants, Asian Elephants tend to have smoother skin and more hair.

Behavior and Ecology

Elephants swim well and are able to submerge themselves and use the trunk as a breathing tube. Among the diverse communication modalities used by elephants is infrasonic communication, which elephants were discovered to utilize only in the late 20th century. The long wavelengths of infrasound are able to travel across large distances, with communication feasible across perhaps as much as 10 km under ideal conditions, although individuals can apparently be distinguished only up to one or a few kilometers. Evidence suggests that seismic signaling may also be used by elephants.

Elephants have a very complex social structure and young animals stay with their mother and her group for many years (perhaps for their entire lives). African Savanna Elephants typically stay within a few meters of their mothers for the first 4-8 years of life. Both Asian and African bulls are typically independent of their families by around 15 years (sometimes as young as six years).

Elephants spend as much as three quarters of their time feeding. Elephants both graze (feeding on grass) and browse (feeding  mainly on leaves and terminal twigs of woody plants) and the diet composition may shift dramatically between wet and dry seasons. Asian Elephant diets tend to include more grass than those of African Elephants.

Elephants can thrive in habitats ranging from deserts to rainforests. They play major roles in shaping ecosystems through their consumption of shrubs and trees and as seed dispersers.

In recent times, African Elephants have been distributed from southernmost South Africa to the Sahel. In Roman times, they were present even in the northern Mediterranean region. Today, most African Elephants live in the sub-Saharan savanna and dry woodland ecoregions, but they continue to persist in desert regions such as Mali's Sahel and the Namib. In addition, they are found in dense tropical forests such as those found on East Africa's volcanos. Historically, Asian Elephants occupied a broad range in tropical Asia from Iraq, India, and Sri Lanka to Malaysia, Indonesia, and southern China. Today, they have been extirpated from more than 85% of this range and over 60% of Asian Elephants are thought to reside in India. Other remnant populations are found in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and the larger islands of the Malay Archpelago.

Elephants and Humans

The lives of elephants and humans have been intertwined for millenia. Asian Elephants were domesticated in the third millenium BC in the Indus Valley and this likely drove the first major declines of the species. Ivory has been a major focus of human-elephant interactions for thousands of years. Given that only the males of Asian Elephants bear tusks, African ivory was needed to satisfy the demand in India, China, and Japan and was being traded by the 6th century BC. The African slave trade was closely tied to the ivory trade, with slaves carrying ivory to the coast, where both were sold. Elephants were eradicated from much of west and southern Africa during this period. With the decline of the slave trade, ivory trade also declined and elephant populations are thought to have rebounded during much of the 1900s. Unfortunately, the 1970s saw a huge upsurge in the ivory trade with a devastating impact. It has been estimated that between 1979 and 1989 the African Elephant population was reduced from around 1.3 million to around half a million. Since then, there have been periods of both recovery and decline and the status of African Elephants remains precarious. As large-scale agriculture has increased in Africa since the 1980s, human-elephant conflicts over crop-raiding have increased. Asian Elephant populations have continued to decline as a result of both the ivory trade and habitat loss/range reduction.  Although young elephants can fall prey to Tigers (in Asia) and Lions (in Africa), adult elephants are safe from predators except for humans.

At one time, elephants ranged over much of Africa and southern Asia and into the Middle East. Demand for ivory by the Roman Empire is thought to have led to the eradication of African Elephants from the northern Sahara and Asian Elephants from the Middle East. Elephant populations in both Africa and Asia declined with the increased demand for ivory (notably, for piano keys in the 1800s and 1900s). Range reduction and fragmentation poses a serious threat to the long-term viability of elephant populations in both Africa and Asia. From the vantage point of the early decades of the 21st century, only in southern Africa do elephant populations appear relatively secure, but elephants have shown themselves to be highly adapable and with adequate protection there is still hope for recovery over much of their current range. If the ivory trade increases, this will pose a great threat to remaining elephant populations, especially in light of the political instability in many of the countries in which elephants persist. Counterbalancing these threats, however, is the growing economic importance of ecotourism in many countries with elephants.

(Wittemeyer 2011 and references therein)


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© Leo Shapiro

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