The Natural History of the African Elephant
Habitat and Range
The habitat of the elephant varies from rain forests to semi-desert regions. They live on plains and in mountains up to about 15,000 feet (5,000 m). They are most common in savanna areas, which provide grass, trees and also water, used for drinking and daily bathing. Elephants were once found throughout Africa, apart from the desert regions. Today, they are extirpated in northern Africa and endangered throughout the rest of their range. Their greatest concentrations are found in the parks and reserves of east and central Africa.
African elephants are the largest land animals with body growth continuing for up to 30 years. Bulls (males) may reach a height of 9-13 feet (3-41/2 m) at the shoulder and weigh between 9,000-13,000 pounds (4,500-6,000 kg). Cows (females) are smaller in size, averaging 7-9 feet (2.5-3 m) at the shoulder and weighing between 4,500-7,000 pounds (2,200-3,000 kg). An adult elephant will be almost as tall as it is long. The ears alone can measure nearly 6 feet (2 m) high and 4 feet (1.5 m) wide and weigh almost 100 pounds (45 kg).
The great size of the ears, and the multitude of blood vessels in them, are factors that assist the animal in radiating excess heat. As the elephant grows, molar teeth move forward in the jaw. In this process, worn out teeth are replaced by new ones for up to six times. General health declines after the last teeth are worn down since the elephant can no longer grind up the woody plant material of its diet. Both males and females have tusks that grow throughout life and are actually very long upper incisors. Tusk size depends on several factors, such as age and sex; the older the elephant the larger the tusk, and males typically have much larger tusks than females. Average tusk weight for 60-year-old elephants is 135 pounds (61 kg) for males and 20 pounds (9.2 kg) for females.
The trunk is an elongated nose and is used for breathing, trumpeting, smelling, drinking, eating, grasping, fighting, and communicating. This versatile organ contains some 40,000 muscles and tendons and is equipped with two fingerlike projections at the tip. Skin color is dark gray or grayish brown, although they may have small patches of pink skin on the edges of their ears. The skin is wrinkled and can be over 1 inch (3 cm) thick in places, but it is quite flexible and sensitive. Because of this skin sensitivity, elephants often cover themselves with mud or dust, thus giving them the color of the local soil.
Elephants will feed on leaves, shoots, buds, twigs, branches, fruit, grass, and other vegetation. All food is grasped with the trunk and put into the mouth. Elephants drink daily if the water is available, but can go for several days without drinking if they have to. They frequently use their tusks to dig up roots, tubers, and mineral salts from the ground. In captivity, they eat timothy hay; dairy and herd grain, fruits, vegetables and trace mineral salts. Elephants eat about 4 to 6 percent of their body weight in food per day. The elephant’s digestive system isn’t very efficient and only about 44% of what is eaten is actually processed, the rest being eliminated as waste. Elephants can drink as much as 26 gallons (100 liters) at a time and as much as 59 gallons (227 liters) per day.
Elephants can live as long as 65 to 70 years.
Elephants are able to produce offspring at about 10-12 years of age. The gestation period is about 22 months. An average weight for a newborn calf is about 200-250 pounds. Usually, there is only one calf born at a time. Births occur during all months of the year, but appear to be most frequent during the rainy season.
Senses and Communication
Elephants use several types of sounds to communicate. Rumbling, a deep growling sound, most of which is below the range of human hearing, can travel for miles. A variety of screams and trumpets are used to frighten and intimidate rivals or predators as well as communicate alarm. Trumpeting is also used as a greeting call. Elephants have keen senses of hearing and smell, but are thought to have relatively weak eyesight, seeing clearly for only a few hundred feet.
Elephants live in groups averaging 9-11 individuals. The groups are made up of families of sisters and their offspring. Young bulls are forced out of the family when they are 12-15 years of age. A mature adult female dominates family groups. Related family groups are often found near each other and sometimes form “bond groups” by moving or feeding together.